Public Works Board Approves Maryland Budget Cuts

State health department absorbs majority of layoffs

By BRIAN WITTE
|  Wednesday, Aug 26, 2009  |  Updated 7:30 PM EDT
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Public Works Board Approves Maryland Budget Cuts

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Maryland's health department is handing out pink slips as the state struggles to cope with a budget deficit.

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Maryland's health department absorbed 160 of 202 state employee layoffs approved unanimously by the Board of Public Works on Wednesday as part of $454 million in budget cuts, reductions that are taking a toll on health facilities.

The Upper Shore Community Mental Health Center in Chestertown will close its inpatient psychiatric units in February, cutting 90 jobs and saving $2.7 million. Two wards at Spring Grove Hospital in Catonsville also will be closed, eliminating 50 jobs.

"Cuts that we had made in previous rounds, which I thought were bad, now look easy," Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John Colmers told the board.

A 2 percent cut in funding for community service providers is another tough jolt, affecting providers who serve Medicaid patients and the developmentally disabled to save about $21.7 million.

Advocates for the developmentally disabled, who rallied outside the statehouse last week against the cuts, said the reductions will force providers to reduce staffing levels and consider discharging people with higher needs because of an increase in uncompensated care.

"That's a very fragile system, because it's been underfunded for years and this just is making a critical situation even worse," said Stephen Morgan, executive director of The Arc of Baltimore, an advocacy group for the disabled.

Colmers noted that he's long been out of easy choices to make, and anxiety is rising that the reductions could persuade health providers to avoid serving Medicaid patients.

"The providers are not indentured servants," Colmers said. "They don't have to participate in the program, and we're fearful of reaching a point where providers drop out of the program and thereby reduce access to needed services for the poor and the disabled and the most vulnerable."

It was the sixth time the Board of Public Works has made midyear budget cuts since Gov. Martin O'Malley took office. O'Malley, who is on the board with Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, said previous rounds of reductions have left little to cut without serious pain.

"Some of these cuts will no doubt challenge us as we've never been challenged before ... to make progress even though we have less money," said O'Malley, a Democrat.

But Republicans criticized the governor and Democratic leadership in the Legislature for failing to act sooner.

Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, said everyone in Annapolis knew the state was facing serious budget problems earlier this year, and the administration and legislative leadership failed to make more cuts during the session to prepare.

"Despite all those warnings, the governor and, frankly, the leaders of the Legislature, haven't made the tough decisions, and it causes more hardship for Maryland residents and employees because of their failure to lead."

E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, said there was a chance to make the cuts.

"What happened is the stimulus money came in from the federal level and all discussions about fiscal responsibility went out the window," he said.

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will move 88 jobs to other facilities, resulting in the closing of the minimum-security Herman L. Toulson Correctional Facility in Jessup by March 1. Its 300 inmates will be transferred to other facilities.

The department also will reduce the number of inmates at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore by moving them to other facilities to save money.

Sheila Hill, a correctional officer at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup, said a furlough plan that will force officers to take three to five furlough days could make some of them decide to leave state facilities for county facilities, where there are no furloughs.

"The counties didn't take a reduction in their salary, so that will make them look a lot more attractive to correctional officers," Hill said.

The state's transportation department will lose 22 filled jobs and 44 vacant positions.

The state's Board of Revenue Estimates will meet Sept. 17 to provide a better picture of where the state's revenues are.

Franchot said he was far from sure if the state has turned a corner to better fiscal conditions, citing personal credit card delinquency, home foreclosures and unemployment as bad signs.

"So I think that we're going to be back here a seventh, eighth, ninth time," Franchot said, referring to budget cuts the board is authorized to make when the Legislature is not in session. "It's a very bleak picture as far as state revenues."

The board has cut $736 million in the first two months of the current fiscal year. The state is facing a $1.5 billion deficit in the next fiscal year.

T. Eloise Foster, O'Malley's budget secretary, said about $100 million in the cuts approved Wednesday will carry over into fiscal year 2011.
 

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