Furloughs appear likely

The Baltimore Sun

Amid a looming budget deficit for next fiscal year, the county is considering furloughs for county employees and tapping into the rainy day fund for the first time to cut costs.

Although the county does not anticipate furloughs for this fiscal year, next year's anticipated $108 million budget deficit will require the county to cut spending where it can, County Executive John R. Leopold said.

"These are options that may be necessary in light of this sluggish economy," Leopold said.

The furloughs - they would require county employees to take off up to 13 days without pay - were not official last week, but John Hammond, Anne Arundel County's budget officer, said the likelihood of them happening was "very high."

"Hopefully everybody will work together to take a little bit of pain so that a lot of people don't take an awful lot of pain," Hammond said.

In the 17 years that the rainy day fund has existed, the county has never used it, Leopold said. The county is considering using 20 percent to 25 percent of the $48 million in the fund, he said.

"We've taken a number of anticipatory steps preparing for this stormy economic climate, so I think it's important to be candid and share with the public the budget deficit figures," Leopold said.

This fiscal year, the county is in a $45 million budget deficit, said Leopold, who has implemented several cost-cutting measures to help balance the budget, including three hiring freezes, the curtailing of take-home cars for many county employees, and buying fuel in the spot market rather than through a purchasing pool.

Leopold said that although property and income taxes have shown a slight decline, the bulk of the revenue reduction comes from loss of recordation and transfer taxes.

On Jan. 30, Leopold and Hammond presented the figures to the county's legislative delegation, urging the members to look carefully at legislative proposals that would take money from the general fund.

"We are not flush with cash now, and we must retrench and be disciplined in all our fiscal actions," Leopold said.

Other measures the county is considering to offset next year's deficit include cutting spending in various departments and slowing down contributions to the retiree health insurance pre-funding program, Hammond said. Fiscal 2010 starts in July.

"This is probably as bad as it's been," Hammond said, referring to the budget crisis. He has been budget officer for about 15 years, he said.

"We're not any different from other local governments, and we're certainly not any different from what's going on in the private sector. ... The economy is taking a nose dive."

Mike Akers, president of AFSCME Local 582, a union that represents about 800 employees in nine county departments, said the county and union have discussed the furlough issue, but "at this point in time there's been no decision."

"We understand the situation with the county budget is pretty dire," Akers said.

He said the union's contract does not restrict furloughs.

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