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Some state universities freeze spending, hiring

The majority of Maryland’s public universities are implementing spending freezes, including restrictions on hiring and facility upgrades, in response to the state’s significant projected budget shortfall.

The University System of Maryland has directed each of the 12 member institutions to tighten their belts to prepare for a projected $900 million state budget shortfall over two years — a nearly $300 million deficit for the current fiscal year and another $600 million in fiscal 2016.

More than half a dozen universities — from Salisbury University to the University of Baltimore — confirmed Thursday they have implemented some or all of the following restrictions: a hiring freeze for all positions (with limited exceptions); salary freezes for all positions (with limited exceptions); restrictions on travel; and delays of equipment purchases and facility renewal projects.

The university system is preparing for a potential budget reduction of $40 million to $80 million, according to Frostburg State University President Jonathan Gibralter, who sent a memo to the campus community on Nov. 19 explaining the situation.

“[State Department of Budget and Management Secretary T.] Eloise Foster has asked that all state entities reduce their rate of expenditures and prepare for a mid-year budget cut,” Gibralter wrote.

For Frostburg, the target reduction is between $260,000 and $300,000 for this fiscal year, according to university spokeswoman Liz Medcalf. The university is still working to develop a specific plan for implementing the restrictions, she said.

Although it’s unknown how large the expected state budget cuts will be, “it is prudent to begin taking actions that will give us maximum flexibility once the extent of the reductions is known,” Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wrote in a letter to his campus community.

Towson University’s chief financial officer, Joe Oster, sent a memo to faculty and staff on Nov. 13 in which he wrote that Towson “has been directed by USM to take immediate cost-saving measures to deal with impending budget reductions.”

In addition to the hiring freeze, the university is reducing “all operating expenditures,” Oster wrote. Only “essential” travel will be allowed.

Oster was not available for further comment Thursday, and he did not specify in the memo when the freezes would be lifted. Other university representatives also could not say how long the restrictions would last.

Institutions have some flexibility over how to reduce their spending, but many universities have chosen to implement all the actions suggested by USM officials.

“Generally speaking, the USM does not direct our campuses to take certain actions, but rather offers guidance to the presidents for the management of their institutions,” USM spokesman Mike Lurie said.

Gov. Martin J. O’Malley announced in July that at least $10 million needed to be trimmed from higher education, but it wasn’t clear at the time how much more would have to be cut.

Then in September, the state Board of Revenue Estimates announced it was reducing its revenue projections by more than $405 million. And last month, legislators learned the state faces a $291 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year.

Reporter Bryan B. Sears contributed to this report. 

About Alissa Gulin

Alissa Gulin covers health care, education and general business at The Daily Record.