County Executive Robert R. Neall took office yesterday trying not to tax or spend.
In his first piece of legislation to the County Council, Neall planned to propose a 10 percent cap on annual growth in individual property assessments, even while he seeks about $10 million savings in the $617 million budget. The current growth limit is 15 percent.
Passage of the assessment cap bill would be a quick response by the new administration to homeowners' demands for tax relief, a central theme in last month's elections.
"Right from the first night, he's come out swinging," new Councilman George Bachman, D-Linthicum, said after the council was sworn in yesterday.
"I think that shows what kind of an administration this will be."
Although Neall has ordered no budget cuts yet, he said county departments will absorb a $10 million drop in revenue brought on by a slowdown in the economy.
Budget officials expect that the county will end fiscal 1991 in June with a $12 million surplus, but Neall said using that money to make up for declining revenue could threaten the county's solvency.
"The first edict, I said we're going to close the 1991 fiscal year in a balanced position," he said after attending swearing-in ceremonies for the council. "If my arithmetic is correct, $12 million minus $10 million leaves only $2 million. I'm going to do everything I can to protect that and increase it if possible."
Neall has also reaffirmed his campaign promise to limit growth in total county property tax revenues to 5 percent annually.
Meanwhile, he won tentative support for the assessment cap from several council members.
"That's a major piece of legislation. It's going to have far-reaching impact," said Bachman, who served on the council from 1966 to 1982, when he lost to O. James Lighthizer in a bid for county executive.
"I think the message we got out there on election is that a majority of voters were saying that we step back and take a look at ourselves. If that's the way to do it, certainly I'd support it."
The General Assembly granted local governments the flexibility to restrict growth in individual assessments this year in response to statewide complaints about rising property tax bills. Although proposals for various limits were popular among many candidates for local office, council members and Lighthizer never considered changing the growth cap.
But with the new council, "Tax relief is on the front burner and is in everybody's frame of mind," returning councilman David Boschert, D-Crownsville, said.
Council Chairwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River, said she supports the assessment cap but would oppose any attempts to lower it below 10 percent.
Councilman Carl "Dutch" Holland, R-Pasadena, one of two new council members that represent the first Republicans elected in 20 years, supported capping assessments during his campaign but said yesterday that it was too soon to comment on Neall's proposal.
Several county department heads also said it was too early to respond to Neall's goal to cut $10 million from the budget, even though he asked them at a strategic planning conference last month to consider ways to save 10 percent.
"He asked people to look at it, but I don't think it's official," Department of Aging director Carole R. Baker said. "We would probably look at increasing volunteers."
If necessary, she said, the department might save money by imposing a hiring freeze on vacant jobs that don't directly affect service.
Neall said during the campaign that "front-line" teachers, firefighters and police officers would be "held harmless" by any possible budget cuts.
Police Chief George W. Wellham III said that, so far, nothing has been asked of his department.
"We will do what's asked of us," he said, adding he does not expect Neall to revive an aborted Lighthizer administration plan to buy out older department employees in return for early retirement.
Health Officer Thomas C. Andrews noted that his department already began a partial hiring and purchasing freeze in response to state budget cuts announced in September.
Because the Department of Health is jointly supported by the state and county, Andrews is seeking county approval for moving jobs from state to local administration, thus protecting vacancies from the state hiring freeze. The change would also allow the department to improve salaries for food, restaurant and septic inspectors, whose state salaries are typically $3,000 to $7,000 less than those of their peers in surrounding counties, he said.
Andrews said he believes Neall would be more interested in specific programs than in a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut, as suggested at the strategic planning conference.
"It was an exercise that I've gone through many times in my 22 years in the state bureaucracy," said Andrews, formerly with the state Department of Natural Resources.
But Neall said he expects each department head to submit written suggestions for 10 percent cuts, to help him trim both next year's budget and current spending.
"If I thought they needed it as an exercise, we would have PT (physical training) outside," he said.