Howard County officials turned out in force on March 1 to oppose a Maryland state budget proposal by Gov. Martin O’Malley that would shift $240 million in teacher pension costs to the counties — and that’s just the first year’s price tag.
Speaking at a “Stop the Shift” rally at the Harper’s Choice Village Center, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman was joined by other elected county officials, department heads, public safety workers and union officials.
“This is real,” Ulman told participants, explaining that the county’s $17 million share of the pension costs would deliver a “crippling blow” to his own fiscal 2013 operating budget, which must be presented to the county council by April 21.
“[W]hat’s being discussed in Annapolis is going to have an absolute real impact on the quality of life in Howard County and around the state of Maryland if it were to pass,” Ulman said.
His choice of venue was no accident, he added.
“We’re here at Harper’s Choice because it’s an example of the kind of partnerships between county government and communities … [that] take place throughout the county,” Ulman said, pointing out the nearby police substation, Harper’s Choice Middle School and the Florence Bain Senior Center. “All of these things, frankly, are on the chopping block if what the governor has proposed passes.”
Currently, the state of Maryland foots the bill for public school teacher pension funds, with teachers typically contributing 5% to 7% of their salaries. Gov. O’Malley would like to pass half of the state’s cost on to the counties.
“One of the biggest challenges [for Howard County] … is that the first year it’s $17 million, and it quickly goes to $25 million in a couple of years and grows dramatically, Ulman said.
Officials from jurisdictions across Maryland, including Ulman and Howard County Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4), descended on Annapolis last month to testify on the hardships that a pension shift would precipitate.
Storm clouds continued to gather, however, as the state senate voted on March 15 to accept O’Malley’s proposal, albeit with a recommendation to gradually phase in the shift during a four-year period.
The House of Delegates was next in line to consider the teacher pension shift, with the House Ways and Means Committee passing its own proposal on March 19, which reduces the phase-in period to three years.
At present, the House plan remains to be considered by the full chamber. Any differences between the final House and Senate versions will need to be worked out in a conference committee before final adjournment of the General Assembly in April.
Retirees vs. Students
It’s not the counties who will have to pony up for the pension shift, Sigaty said, but the citizens themselves.
“It will impact the poor in our community more than anyone,” she said. “If we are now saddled with the pension shift, our ability to provide services [to those in need] will be significantly curtailed.”
County Schools Superintendent Sydney Cousin said that while the county faces a $17 million obligation, the possibility exists that $16 million of that figure could be passed on to the school system.
“It’s 225 teaching positions,” he said. “It’s transportation for 34,000 students, interscholastic activities, our preschool programs. All of these would be affected if we had to reduce our budget by $16 million. It’s unheard of.”
In March, Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Ray Brown suggested that the school board first consider cutting $4.9 million in program enhancements that were included in the board’s fiscal ’13 Operating Budget Request.
No decision has yet been made to make cuts, nor is it yet known if they will be needed. Nevertheless, the school system’s March 12 newsletter identified the following cuts as part of that scenario: expansion of the world language pilot; technology replacement plans; the digital education officer and assistant; the Hispanic achievement liaison; the continuous improvement coordinator; two community liaisons and the half-time environmental science teacher.
Other adjustments could include increasing student walking distances by 0.5 mile, increasing student/teacher ratios in grades 1 and 2 from 19:1 to 20:1, and reducing the number of administrative interns, work-study teachers and paraeducators.
“This is going to pit retirees against students, and people in need against the mandates that are coming from the federal level and the state level,” said Howard County Board of Education President Sandra French. “Why pit a state governance issue and put it on the locals for us to solve?”
While the police and fire departments will still be able to respond to calls if their budgets get cut, their outreach programs could be severely curtailed.
“The 18 officers that we now have assigned to the high schools and middle schools will be gone,” said Police Chief Bill McMahon. “What kind of impact are those officers having on young people every single day?”
The police department would no longer be able to staff special events and fundraising activities, McMahon said, and would likely have to cut positions such as the senior liaison officer, multicultural officer and personnel, and language translators.
Given the pension shift, the county will not be able to fund the fireworks at its July 4 celebration at Lake Kittamaqundi this year, Ulman said, and public library hours may be reduced.
Recreation and Parks Director John Byrd added that 17 positions in his department will have to remain unstaffed, hours may have to be reduced at community centers and the Robinson Nature Center, playgrounds may be closed or removed and maintenance issues may not get resolved quickly.
“We probably won’t open Roger Carter Pool this season,” Byrd said. “These are all services that people who don’t have a lot of money get to use for free.”
As for the argument that counties should share the burden in tough economic times, “We’ve been sharing,” Ulman said, noting that state aid to Howard County for such things as road maintenance and police, library and health aid decreased from $30 million during his first year as county executive to only $4 million this year.
“I guess the state couldn’t keep cutting any more aid because there’s not much left, so they decided to send us a bill,” he said.
One other area of concern is whether the county can count any new pension costs toward its maintenance of effort obligation to provide the same amount of per-student funding as the previous year.
“If the full bill comes to the county side, then a maintenance of effort waiver would be on the table,” Ulman said. “I’ve never asked for it before and I hope I don’t have to, but I’m putting everything on the table if the pension shift happens as proposed.”