BUDGET WOES

As Many as 125 Prince George's Workers to Be Laid Off

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said he's tried
County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said he's tried "very hard" to prevent job cuts. (Bill O'Leary - Washington Post)

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By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

As many as 125 Prince George's County employees will be laid off Nov. 1 to help close a budget gap left by almost $23 million in recent state funding cuts, County Executive Jack B. Johnson said Monday.

The announcement of the county's first round of layoffs during the current economic downturn underscores the worsening financial picture in Prince George's, where officials have tried other cost-cutting measures, including furloughs, a hiring freeze and eliminating vacant positions. The layoffs could also be a harbinger for localities across Maryland, which are reeling from more than $200 million in local aid cuts from the state last month.

"I have tried very hard during the 18 months of this economic downturn to prevent job losses," Johnson (D) said in a statement. "As a result of the state cuts four weeks ago, I have nowhere else to look and I am forced to announce the layoffs of county employees."

The statement, noting that the "need for additional layoffs will be evaluated on a regular basis," left the door open to future job cuts if the fiscal scenario worsens.

Johnson's office did not give a comprehensive breakdown of which departments will lose employees, although the statement did say that as many as 40 employees will be cut from the health department because of a "direct state cut" to that agency of $2.7 million. There are no plans to lay off sworn public safety officers, said Johnson's spokesman, James P. Keary.

Asked how residents would be affected, Keary said: "They might have to wait a little longer for a service, it might take them a little longer to get a permit, they might have to wait a little longer in line."

Each department head has been given a target number of how many employees to lay off, but Keary declined to disclose those figures, saying they are in flux. County employees being laid off will be notified Oct. 2, with an effective date of Nov. 1. During that month, the employees will be placed on paid leave so they can start job hunting, and the county will offer coaching on résumé writing, interview skills and other transition necessities, officials said.

Keary said the layoffs represent about $6.7 million of the $22.7 million cut by the state. The county will also cut $3 million from its contribution to its hospital system, $1.5 million in information technology upgrades, $2 million from its risk management budget and $1.2 million from the Prince George's Community College budget, Keary said. An additional $1.8 million will be saved by eliminating 25 vacant positions for which money was allocated in this year's budget.

The remainder of the cuts will be dealt with through "a continuation of agency operating cost reductions," Keary said, including likely cuts in advertising, travel spending and office supplies. There are also plans to make county employees pay more for their health benefits beginning later this year, he said, and the county is considering closing some departments during a week in late December. Keary said details on the health-care plan changes were not available Monday.

Vince Canales, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police, said Monday that he was disturbed by the lack of details about the layoffs.

"It leaves too many things that are vague," Canales said. "It's still unacceptable in the sense that people need to know what's going on here."

In a statement, County Council Chairwoman Marilynn M. Bland (D-Clinton) highlighted that the layoff plan did not require approval by the council and called the state cuts "extremely disappointing. . . . We hope the state can find the critical revenue necessary to prevent further cuts to our local government," she said.

Even before it was released, the plan drew fire from local union officials who were briefed on it last week. They said that the county should tap its reserve funds before laying off workers, a move county officials said would be fiscally irresponsible.

The county has a rainy-day fund of $182 million, Keary said. But county officials say tapping the fund would be shortsighted, because the recession could worsen and such action could jeopardize the county's coveted AAA bond rating. A loss of that rating would mean huge future costs to the county in interest payments.


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