Teacher pension shift could force county to cut staff

Howard County government may have to cut its workforce if Gov.Martin O'Malley's proposal to shift a portion of teachers' pension costs to the counties passes through the General Assembly.

Ray Wacks, the county's budget administrator, told the County Council Monday, Feb. 13 that the governor's proposal could cost Howard anywhere between $6 million and $17 million, depending on which of the governor's proposed relief measures pass through the General Assembly. State lawmakers already are having a tough time accepting O'Malley's proposal to cap income tax deductions and phase-out exemptions for high-income earners, a measure that is supposed to provide the most financial relief to the counties.


Teacher pension costs are expected to continue to rise, and county officials estimate the governor's proposal would cost Howard nearly $32 million by fiscal year 2018.

While hoping the pension shift does not pass, county officials are preparing for the worst.


"What the county executive has done is gone to department heads and asked them for alternative plans to reduce (their) budget request by seven percent," Wacks said.

Budgets for the school system and Howard Community College cannot be cut because of state-mandated maintenance of effort requirements. This means County Executive Ken Ulman will only have about one-third of his operating budget to work with to absorb the teacher pension costs. Of that one-third, Wacks said about 80 percent of the costs come from paying the county's roughly 2,600 employees.

Thus, if a shift happens, Wacks said: "We think this would have to involve a reduction in (work) force or reduction in salary."

If the county does have to find $17 million in its budget to pay for teacher pensions, Wacks said that could result in a 10 percent to 15 percent cut in the county government's work force.

Asked if there were any other ways to cut the budget, Wacks said: "There's things you can do that are dramatic and not nice, like stop buying library books for a year."

Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, pointed out that the teacher pension costs will be a burden for years to come and that the county can't do things like not buy library books year after year.

"The only place you can get it from a recurring basis is personnel," she said.

The council is drafting a letter to send to state lawmakers expressing their opposition to the proposed teacher pension shift.