Anne Arundel County executive candidate Theodore J. Sophocleus said yesterday that, unlike several other governments in the region, Arundel will not have to impose a hiring freeze or cut government jobs to cope with the region's economic downturn.
Sophocleus, a Democrat who has served on the County Council for eight years and won endorsements from most labor groups, said he is confident a recession "won't be as dramatic" in Anne Arundel as in other Washington area jurisdictions. For that reason, he said, he believes he will be able to balance the budget through less visible cuts such as deferring capital improvements.
"When you start cutting the employee package, then you start affecting services," Sophocleus said. "You have to look at when you lay a guy off and he has a mortgage and kids in school, are you really gaining anything if he can't get another job?"
Sophocleus's comments, made during a luncheon meeting with reporters and editors of The Washington Post, are in stark contrast to those of his Republican opponent, former state delegate Robert R. Neall, and the recent experiences of other prosperous suburban counties. Neall has said he thinks some reductions in the government's work force will be necessary. Howard, Prince George's and Montgomery counties and the state of Maryland already have imposed hiring freezes to avert projected budget shortfalls caused by lower-than-expected tax revenue.
Sophocleus, 52, a Linthicum pharmacist and former Little League coach, said he thinks Anne Arundel is in a better position to weather an unstable economic climate than those areas because the county officials "prepared for this," making significant expenditures on new police cars, increasing teacher salaries and improving failing sewage treatment plants in the last eight years, a period when tax revenue increased annually.
"We don't have to try to make up deficits . . . . We aren't anywhere near that position," Sophocleus said. He called Neall's statements to the contrary "political rhetoric."
County budget analysts estimate the government's $616 million in revenue will remain flat next year, while salary increases for employees will have to be provided. Sophocleus offered few specifics of programs or projects he would eliminate to cover the additional costs. He said he would "be hard pressed to sink a lot of money into a specific park," the way County Executive James Lighthizer (D) did, spending $18 million on Quiet Waters Park near Annapolis, with the council's approval.
At the same time, Sophocleus named several areas he thinks are deserving of additional funds, such as county programs for fighting substance abuse and promoting environmental protection.
For example, he said he would increase the funding for the county's alcohol and drug abuse office from $400,000 to $900,000, open county school buildings after hours to provide recreation opportunities for young people and begin an effort to plant 1 million trees in the county.
Those initiaitves, Sophocleus said, "will take some money, but not as much as people think" because he plans to make extensive use of volunteers, state and federal grants and user fees.
Asked what distinguishes him from both his opponent and Lighthizer, Sophocleus called Neall "cold" and said Lighthizer could have had better relations with the community. Sophocleus cited his background as a former Little League coach, PTA president and civic association leader. That experience, he said, would make him a more hands-on manager.
"I think you have to be a person who can go out and be a consensus builder," he said. "Politicians should be an extension of the people. The people shouldn't be an extension of the government."