By Karen Anderson
ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 5, 2009)—Government agencies across Maryland were closed Friday, the first of five designated furlough days for state employees designed to help compensate for a nearly $700 million predicted budget shortfall.
The extended holiday weekend will ease the stress of a tough economy on the state's budget, but relief will come at a cost to most state-run services and employee salaries. Maryland's parks and public lands will remain open Labor Day weekend, and state police officers will continue patrolling, but most other employees will stay home, including workers at the Motor Vehicle Administration and the 750 civilian employees at the state police department.
"We are hoping that, obviously because our sworn members will still be out there that there will be absolutely no change in our law enforcement and the absence of civilian personnel will not be noticed. That is our hope," said Major Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police.
Shipley said the department's 1,400 essential personnel—such as dispatchers, traffic and criminal enforcement officers and civilian helicopter pilots—will receive salary reductions, but will report to work.
The state is furloughing its 67,000 employees in order to save $75 million and an estimated 1,500 jobs.
State employees who make less than $40,000 a year will receive a three-day salary reduction. Those who make $40,000 or more will take a five-to-10-day salary reduction based on annual income.
"It's essentially impossible to make that magnitude of state spending reductions and budget cuts without touching local aid and employee compensation," said Shaun Adamec, Gov. Martin O'Malley's deputy press secretary. "The furlough plan primarily avoids laying off a massive amount of people."
Patrick Moran, director of The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees of Maryland, said that while he is not happy with the furloughs, he recognizes that layoffs would be worse.
"They came up with a furlough plan that we don't agree with, we don't like, but the fact is we have the ability to keep people employed and they then have the ability to provide for their families and their communities, and that's paramount to everything," Moran said. "If there'd been position abolishments at the level they were thinking, then you would have a far greater problem and it was important that we averted that at all costs."
The state designated five furlough days scattered across the fiscal year, each of which strategically boarders a holiday.
"The service reduction days conceptually were chosen because it provides additional savings for the state when you shut down buildings for a long weekend," Adamec said. "They were chosen on days when many state employees would take off anyway, like Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve."
Unfortunately, among those holidays are Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends, both busy times for state parks. As a result, the Department of Natural Resources will be staffed and open on Friday and its employees will choose a later furlough day.
"Basically what it comes down to is Labor Day weekend is one of the most popular weekends for people to visit state parks, so while the furlough plan envisions all state offices and services being shut down, there's always exceptions to be made," said Lt. Col. Chris Bushman, deputy superintendent of the Maryland Park Service. "We had about 2,000 reservations for people coming in on Friday, so rather than disappointing all those people we're going to stay open."
Bushman said the parks will likely also be open before Memorial Day.
"It's basically a way for everybody to remain committed to what the governor's trying to accomplish here to affect some cost savings without taking from services the state provides," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.