Howard County School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey reacted angrily to the state's decision to cut $147 million in state aid to counties by eliminating state payment of teachers' Social Security taxes.
"It's an unconscionable meat-ax approach that is really wrong, really a disservice to the school system. A silver bullet that is quick and dirty," Mr. Hickey said.
Until now, the state has been paying Social Security taxes for local school, library and community college employees. Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants local governments to take over those payments. The Howard portion would be $6.9 million.
The governor is expected to convene a special session of the General Assembly next month and ask for the necessary legislation. State Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr. and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. joined the governor in calling for the special legislative session to deal with the Social Security proposal.
"It is one thing to do this in the normal legislative process," Mr. Hickey said. "But to do it now when people are hired and programs are in place puts us in an impossible position."
Just last week, the county school board voted to cut $17 million from the 1994 capital budget and delayed construction of three elementary schools. Mr. Hickey could not say how school programs will be affected by the latest cuts.
The $6.9 million cut comes on top of $700,000 stripped from the local health department in two rounds of state cuts earlier this year. The governor reduced aid to county health departments by $11.6 million this month.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker ruled out a tax increase yesterday. He said he will come up with a plan to cover the cuts in the next two weeks.
"We won't be able to restore all the cuts -- probably not even half," Mr. Ecker said. "We can help with maybe $1 million to $2 million in school cuts and maybe 25 percent of the health cuts. The library and the community college are still a question. I don't know."
The administration will be pressured to use a surplus of nearly $4 million from this year's budget to soften the effect of the most recent cuts, but Mr. Ecker said he is loathe to take that action.
"Any found money won't be there next year," Mr. Ecker said. "I'm also concerned about our bond rating. I want to maintain or improve it. Using all our surplus now is a shortsighted view that would not be prudent or responsible for the long haul."
County Budget Administrator Raymond S. Wacks said the transfer of Social Security tax payments to local governments alters the way the county would prepare future budgets. "Without any improvement in the quality of education, the local cost of education has just gone up by $7 million," Mr. Wacks said.
Dr. Joyce Boyd, the county health officer, has already begun paring her budget.
She told the county board Tuesday that 10 health department employees will lose their jobs on Jan. 15, and four others will get to choose whether they want to be demoted or laid off. The cuts also mean the department will all but close an Ellicott City health clinic and stop monitoring concert noise at Merriweather Post Pavilion next summer, Dr. Boyd said.
The board will protest the cuts by writing a letter to the governor and the state delegation. The board hopes some of the cuts will be restored.
Dr. Boyd said her priorities, should money become available, would be to increase sanitary inspections, restore some public health nurses, resume home visitations for maternity patients, and restore two family planning clinics.
Dwight A. Burrill, president of Howard Community College, said that by freezing purchases and using some reserves, the college should be able to absorb what would amount to about a $600,000 overall cut in state aid.
Library Director Marvin Thomas had just returned from vacation when he learned of the new $300,000 cut his department could be taking. "It will be a hardship" with two new libraries coming on line, he said, adding that it would be premature to try to predict the effect of the cuts now.
In other communities in the Baltimore area, officials agreed that the cuts would be difficult to handle:
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was preparing for the worst. He said the city's 26,000 employees would have to accept pay reductions or face layoffs for the city to absorb the $20 million it is likely to lose because of the state cut.
"We don't have many options," Mr. Schmoke said. "In a budget that is 80 percent personnel, we are left with some combination of salary reductions, layoffs and furloughs."
Mr. Schmoke's plans are sure to be opposed by municipal employee unions, who say their members have shouldered the brunt of the city's budget problems. They point out that city workers have not had a pay increase for two years. And last year, city employees were forced to take a 2 1/2 -day pay cut. A federal lawsuit filed by the unions to force the city to restore the pay cut was successful, but it is being appealed by the city.
County Executive Roger B. Hayden accused the governor and the state's legislative leaders of dumping Maryland's financial problems on local governments, instead of solving them.
"The compact has been broken," Mr. Hayden said of the long-standing relationship under which the state has returned some of its tax dollars for local use.
Mr. Hayden would not say how the county would deal with the cuts. When the last round of reductions came through, Mr. Hayden ordered his departments to rank their programs in order of importance. He said he will make his decisions on which programs to cut after reviewing their findings sometime next month.
Anne Arundel County
Education will not bear the brunt of the $14.4 million proposed cut to Anne Arundel County, County Executive Robert R. Neall promised yesterday.
"A lot of people who are against this cut say it's an education cut. Nothing could be further from the truth," said Mr. Neall, who first made the proposal to state budget officials.
Mr. Neall said he already has worked out a way to absorb the cut in aid for this year without affecting services and without touching his $10 million "rainy day fund." He will pay for the cuts through savings in the county's recent voluntary retirement program, by deferring payment on certain capital projects and by drawing on a $7 million budget surplus from last year.
While he acknowledged the education budget would appear to be taking a big hit, he intends to compensate by transferring funds from other departments. "Obviously we're not going to make them eat the whole thing. We'll sit down and try to share the misery."
Education officials say the plan would mean a $4.1 million cut in state money for schools.
The difference between the most recent proposal and others that have been made is that this one means a permanent shift in responsibility for school funding, said William Hyde, assistant superintendent for administration for schools.
The county commissioners declined to comment on the proposal or speculate on how they might distribute budget cuts. They will not be briefed on the proposal until county Budget Director Steve Powell returns Monday from a trip.
Harford is in better financial shape than most of the other subdivisions, with a $13.7 million surplus in the county's coffers as of June 30, County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said.
But county administrators say all of that money can't be used to offset the entire burden of a nearly $5.9 million cut in payment of Social Security benefits, or the previous $1.7 million cut the county sustained earlier this fiscal year.
About $2.2 million of Harford's surplus has already been committed to some projects, and of the remaining $11.4 million, Mrs. Rehrmann plans to set aside $7.1 million to protect the county's good bond ratings.
Mrs. Rehrmann said she wouldn't try to match the state cuts dollar for dollar, but she reiterated to unions yesterday her promise to protect jobs. Harford is the only county in the metropolitan area that has not had to resort to either furloughs or layoffs to cut operating expenses.