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Ecker budget plan based on N.C. model Program in Charlotte cut municipal jobs, made some services private


County Executive Charles I. Ecker's new plan to cut county government spending is patterned after a Charlotte, N.C., plan that led to the elimination of 683 jobs through attrition and privatization of services, according to Charlotte city officials.

Mr. Ecker's plan, announced at Monday night's County Council meeting, also mirrors the Charlotte plan in its use of teams of government workers to determine how to run government more efficiently.

The Howard plan aims to cut spending on current county services -- except for schools and debt payments -- over the next two years by 12 percent, or $13.4 million. It hopes to eliminate jobs and perhaps to privatize some county services. As with the Charlotte plan, the money cut would not be lost to the county government.

In Howard, the money wouldn't be saved, but would be used instead for state-mandated increases in school spending to keep up with enrollment growth, starting new county programs or, perhaps, hiring more police officers.

Charlotte has hired 294 police officers since its cost-cutting plan began in 1992. Despite the elimination of almost 700 jobs, the city has more employees now than when its cost-cutting began, in part because it has taken over some services from the county that surrounds it.

At the same time, Charlotte has contracted with private operators for its landscaping work and part of its trash collection, and it is studying whether to privatize its wastewater treatment.

Charlotte's government is much larger than Howard's. The city now has 4,883 employees, compared with about 1,850 for Howard County.

Mr. Ecker calls his plan the "Government Optimization Program, A Blueprint for Change" ("GO" for short).

In the past, Howard County could rely on a rapidly expanding tax base to pay for more services. But those days are over, Mr. Ecker and leaders of the Howard County Council say.

Mr. Ecker said he learned about the Charlotte plan in a trade magazine for government officials. He also watched a two-hour videotape in which Charlotte officials explained their plan.

In a telephone interview yesterday, David Cooke, director of business-support services for Charlotte, said the city's cost-cutting has brought officials a lot of attention.

"We get asked a lot to talk about restructuring government," he said.

Recounting Charlotte's efforts, Mr. Cooke sounded a lot like Mr. Ecker Monday night. Both spoke of employee teams, elimination of jobs through attrition instead of layoffs, privatization of services and increased efficiency.

"Our last desire is for someone to get unvoluntarily canned because of what is going on," Mr. Cooke said, echoing comments made by Mr. Ecker this week.

Nevertheless, Mr. Cooke said, Charlotte city workers now know that their jobs are no more secure than private-sector jobs.

Conservative voices in Charlotte have said the city has not gone far enough and has been praised more than it deserves for its cost-cutting.

"If Charlotte moves an inch and everyone else moves a centimeter, Charlotte looks outstanding," said Don Reid, who considered the most conservative of the 11 members of the Charlotte City Council.

Mr. Reid said he was particularly critical of employee teams that developed efficiency plans.

"I've never seen any government employees eliminate their own jobs in my life," Mr. Reid said.

Mr. Ecker said that if the employees develop the details, they would be more apt to support them.

But he said that if he doesn't see substantial cuts within 15 months, he might take things into his own hands.

"At some point, you may have to make your own plan," he said.

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