Gulyas Says County Furloughs Will Be Unavoidable

BERLIN – County staff will not see any pay raises in the next budget, elected officials confirmed this week, maintaining a decision made in November, and one said work furloughs for county employees appear inevitable.

How much the county will save through freezing salaries is not known. County staff contacted this week said those numbers are not ready, but could be available next week. The savings could be difficult to determine, according to county spokesperson Kim Moses, since step and cost of living increases vary from year to year.

Looking at past salary increase numbers gives some clue as to potential savings, however. From fiscal year 2007 to fiscal year 2008, the county’s general fund salary bill increased by $1.8 million. During the same period, Board of Education salaries as a whole for full-time employees, not including contract employees, went up $3.9 million.  Those increases total $5.7 million.

Salaries increased roughly 7 percent from 2007 to 2008. Following this percentage, a salary freeze could save roughly $1.8 million in general fund salaries, and $4.1 million in school salaries, for a possible total of $5.9 million in potential savings.

Employees seem to have accepted the salary freeze philosophically.

“The people I’ve spoken to told me they’re thankful they have a job,” said County Commission President Louise Gulyas.

Projected Worcester County revenues have dropped precipitously, with some officials pegging the difference at $11.2 million, which does not include health insurance figures and bond payments.

That number could change for the worse, and probably will, over the next few months, complicating budget decisions at the county level.

“We’re waiting for a report from the assessment department which will give us the lowdown on assessments, which are going to be very, very sparse,” said Gulyas.

The county will not tap the reserve fund, intended for major disasters, or the teacher and staff retirement fund, to make up revenue shortfalls, Gulyas said.

“Next year might be worse. It probably will be,” she said.

Furloughs for county staff will happen, according to Gulyas, though no official decision has been made.

“I don’t want anybody to lose their job,” Gulyas said. “Nothing’s off the table yet. Nothing. I know we’re going to have furloughs. We’re going to have to.”

Although the County Commissioners have mandated a pay freeze, teacher pay for next year is currently up in the air, as far as the Board of Education is concerned, while annual salary negotiations are still ongoing. By Maryland law, school systems renegotiate salaries, benefits, and working conditions with teachers and staff every year.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes said he could not comment on whether teacher salaries would be frozen, with no cost of living or step increases, since collective bargaining is underway and will not be complete until early March. Furloughs, if under consideration, would have to be discussed during negotiations.

Both Worcester County and the school board will take harder looks at next year’s budget prospects this week. On Tuesday, Feb. 17, at the Worcester County Commissioners meeting, elected officials plan to talk further about the budget, a topic that has often been referenced but seen little formal discussion since November, despite the increasingly complicated fiscal picture. The usual budget process begins in March.

Gulyas said she might schedule a public budget information session before the annual budget public hearing in May to present the county’s fiscal position to the people.  She said she has also considered writing an open letter to citizens to be published in local newspapers.

This fall, the commissioners instructed county departments and the Board of Education to cut budget requests by 3 percent.

The school board has struggled to meet that restriction. A list of potential cuts presented to the school board this month did not reach the 3-percent goal. Andes will bring his final proposed budget to the school board on Feb. 17, including the full amount of cuts.

Some figures will be missing from Andes’ budget next week.

“It will not include any information about our collective bargaining agreements or the other group we negotiate with, the Worcester County Bus Contractors Association,” Andes said.

Gulyas said she hoped the school board, which has a history of asking for substantial increases every year, managed to make the cuts as instructed. The county will not complete the cuts for them, she warned.

“If they want us to make the decision about what should be cut, that’s not going to happen. They were elected to the Board of Education. It’s their job,” Gulyas said.