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Ecker unveils austerity blueprint to council Shifting of funds will be needed for vital services, he says


Howard County government is faced with a challenge: How to increase services in two years without raising taxes.

The answer, according to County Executive Charles I. Ecker, is to run government more efficiently and use the money saved for the new services.

There simply won't be enough money to pay for increased services, Mr. Ecker said. So in order to find the money, "we have to find it from within," he said.

"We do not have the funds to continue to do things the way we do them now," he said of the plan, the details of which will be formed by teams of workers from all levels of government.

Mr. Ecker hopes to shift $13.4 million from current spending levels for all county expenses except schools and debt service. That money -- 12 percent of current total spending -- would be used to pay for:

* State-ordered funding increases for schools to keep up with enrollment growth.

* Increases in the county's debt service payments.

* New services for residents.

In the last category, Mr. Ecker cited public safety as a top priority. "If we have some left-over money," he said, "we could buy some policemen."

The plan is "in a state of flux," he told the council.

In trying to cut spending, Mr. Ecker wants to run county government with fewer than the current total of 1,850 workers. He says he hopes to avoid layoffs through attrition.

"I don't know whether it's 50 less or 100 less or 200 less. I have no idea," Mr. Ecker said.

All job opennings will be studied by a "job bank" for possiblelimination. Employees can even take their own position to the job bank and ask for something more meaningful, Mr. Ecker said.

"Every job vacancy is an opportunity for a department to look ahow it does things and if it could do things more efficiently," Mr. Ecker said.

Council Chairman Charles E. Feaga asked Mr. Ecker about the number of county employees who work 35-hour weeks. There are 657 such employees, or about one-third of the county government staff.

"If you're going to make them work 40 hours, your going to have to pay them five more hours," he said.

Still, moving these workers to 40-hour weeks could cover the duties of positions that are abolished through attrition, Mr. Ecker said. The county would save money by not paying as many benefits, he said.

Staffers who work 35-hour weeks are the white-collar professionals and their support staff, said Arthur Griffin, chief of the classification and pay unit of the county's personnel office.

The rest of the county's workers -- blue-collar workers and law enforcement officers, work 40 hours or more each week.

Several 35-hour-a-week employees interviewed yesterday afternoon were concerned about working more hours, even if they were paid the extra five hours.

She has a child in day-care. Working eight-hour days "puts a crunch on you if you have kids to cart around," said the employee, who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Ecker's plan is aimed at the 1998 fiscal year, which starts on July 1, 1997.

Not all departments would have to cut their budget by 12 percent. Some would cut more, some less.

Mr. Ecker said cutbacks through attrition represent the greatest chance for savings.

As an incentive to cut costs, each department would receive a direct say in how the 12 percent would be spent on new programs. For every $4 that a department saved, $1 would stay in the department, Mr. Ecker said.

Mr. Ecker also may ask for a change in county law to allow staffers to receive bonuses for saving money.

Council member C. Vernon Gray endorsed the idea: "If someone saves a million dollars, they should get a thousand."

Before the plan even takes place, Mr. Ecker is asking department heads to cut their budgets for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 1996.

Mr. Ecker and the council agreed that the government could be run more efficiently.

"It's not a staff problem," Mr. Ecker said. "It's the structure. We have a structure in place that doesn't allow for efficiency."

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