County’s Department Merge Calls For Layoffs

SNOW HILL – Sources say the Worcester County Commissioners are planning to consolidate the Comprehensive Planning, Development Review and Permitting and Environmental Programs departments, laying off 12 staffers, a decision made during a closed session on Tuesday.

Neither the Worcester County Commissioners nor county staff has officially confirmed the vote, which was taken in closed session because of the personnel issues involved, but a number of sources, none of which were elected officials, confirmed the decision was made on Tuesday. The reported consolidation and lay-off vote was taken after the budget had already been balanced. The changes do not contribute to balancing the budget.

“I can’t comment on that,” said County Commission President Louise Gulyas when contacted Wednesday. “I really can’t talk about it.”

Some concerned citizens see the move as a step toward gutting the county departments concerned with development and land use to make it easier for developers to build in the county, while others are concerned that the commissioners are making major decisions out of the public arena.

“While staffing cuts require autonomy, decisions regarding consolidation of agencies as crucial to this county as our environmental and planning departments should be a completely open and transparent process by the commissioners,” said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips.

While accepted practice calls for hiring and firing decisions to be made in closed sessions, some citizens question whether it is appropriate for a major reorganization, which could have a definite effect on county policy to be discussed and decided out of the public eye.

Under the broadly written Maryland Open Meetings Act law, elected officials are permitted to discuss and make decisions on personnel matters behind closed doors.

This is the second time the commissioners have held a major decision back from the public in just over a month. The commissioners met on a Friday morning, April 24, in a clandestine emergency meeting to consider withdrawing the county’s school funding Maintenance of Effort waiver request.

That meeting ostensibly was open to the public, but it was not advertised outside the government building, or communicated to the public or press by phone call, fax, or e-mail. Information on the meeting was posted hours before it was held and only on a public bulletin board in the government building inside the commissioners’ office.

This week, during discussions that occurred during the open budget work session on Tuesday morning, consolidation supporters presented the move as a way to save money, $532,000, by consolidating the three departments and eliminating 12 positions, in the face of continued economic stress.

The 12 eliminated staffers hold a variety of positions and seniority levels. Any laid off personnel would likely receive severance pay, according to remarks made by Commission Vice President Bud Church during the open meeting. 

During that work session Tuesday morning, two County Commissioners, Church and Bobby Cowger, pushed hard to downsize the county government, saying that lay-offs would act as cushion for future shortfalls, citing the expected continuation of lowered revenues next year. Neither commissioner suggested across the board lay-offs distributed over departments.            Despite the commissioners’ habit of restricting personnel issues to closed session, they did ask Human Resources Director George Bradley to detail the positions in jeopardy during the open session. 

Elected officials balanced the fiscal year 2010 Worcester County budget Tuesday morning without lay-offs or furloughs. The downsizing argument was taken up after the vote to balance the budget, during a discussion by the commissioners of smaller cuts that could be made.

Just because the budget had been balanced, Cowger said, did not mean that the commissioners should dismiss staff reductions and downsizing.

“I think you’re doing a disservice to the county, not considering downsizing government,” said Cowger.

Commissioner Judy Boggs said she was confident the commissioners and staff would be able to prepare for future shortfalls by next year.

“I don’t want to go any further and end up with surpluses,” said Boggs said.

“We’re doing a disservice to the taxpayers. Next year is going to be twice as bad as this year,” said Church.

There was little discussion of furloughs as a money-saving gesture. According to staff, one furlough day for all county employees would save $84,000. The county could save $532,000 through 6.3 furlough days for every county employee.

Cowger questioned whether Worcester County should be one of the only governments in Maryland not downsizing or making cuts in employees.

“I don’t know how we’re going to explain to the taxpayers,” said Cowger.

Cowger predicted a big tax increase in the next few years for Worcester County.

The commissioners have not increased taxes for the next fiscal year.

“We can always address this. We don’t have to address it now in the budget. The budget is balanced,” said Boggs.

“We’re not acting in a prudent way…I don’t want to lay anyone off. I don’t,” said Church.

Some county departments are functioning at 50 percent of the capacity needed three years ago, when building was at a high point in the county, he said.

Boggs said she would consider laying off temporary workers, but not full-time staff.

Commissioner Linda Busick called any decision to lay staff off that day arbitrary.

“I think it would be adding to our 16.9 percent unemployment,” said Busick.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley pointed out that, during the previous week’s budget session, his proposal that three part-time grass cutters be eliminated from the budget could not even get a second, but now all of a sudden two commissioners were supporting lay-offs.

Gulyas said that the commissioners should look at re-organizing those three departments, starting there and coming back to make a decision later. “I truly believe we need to re-organize the departments and start it now,” said Gulyas.

“It doesn’t make anyone happy to make these reductions,” said Church. 

After some discussion, Church abruptly made a motion to downsize county government by consolidating the Comprehensive Planning, Environmental Programs, and Development Review and Permitting departments. Cowger seconded the motion.

Boggs then invoked a point of order, saying that she did not know if it was appropriate to make that kind of decision during a work session.

Cowger pointed out that the commissioners voted on the Board of Education budget at the previous week’s work session.

“I don’t think that was appropriate either,” said Boggs.

Church made a motion to go into closed session to discuss personnel matters.

Despite the open session discussions on the matter, which ended only when the commissioners decided to go into closed session, the decision to consolidate the departments was not announced when the commissioners returned to the budget workshop. The only word on what transpired during the closed session was a perfunctory report by Gulyas that personnel matters had been discussed.

Church withdrew his earlier motion upon returning to the open session and Cowger withdrew his second.

Information on actions taken during the closed session quickly emerged through the community, but there appear to be no firm plans for a formal announcement of the consolidation of the three departments.