Neall Promises To Be Firm With Schools

March 12, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

The Board of Education has proposed a 1992 budget with $23 million in new spending, less than half the rate of recent growth.

But County Executive Robert R. Neall thinks that's $23 million too much.

"Budgets are not instruments of happiness," Neall said yesterday during a wide-ranging interview about his first three months in office.

The county cannot afford to spend a penny more in 1992 than the$617 million appropriated for this year, he said.

Based on declining revenue projections, Neall predicted that the budget he proposes in May could be $7 million to $12 million less than current spending.

"Coming up with a flat budget in the face of increasing demands is a tough task," he said in praise of county department chiefs who did exactly that last week.

In the face of an $8 million deficit this year, the school board has already lowered thermostats and canceledfield trips for high school extracurricular activities.

But that doesn't mean Neall will pass on to the County Council the school board's 1992 budget, which proposes increasing spending from $330 millionto $353 million.

"I'm not picking on anybody," he said, "but I'm faced with a budget where I'm not going to collect any more than lastyear. So, unless you dismantle other parts of county government . . . I can't possibly include that amount of money in the county budget.It isn't there."

Repeating his promise to protect front-line teachers, Neall would not suggest where the school board might make cuts.

Like other county agencies, the school budget provides no money for cost-of-living raises next year.

The two unions representing teachers and secretaries have declared an impasse in renegotiating their contracts, which expire in June. With Detention Center workers the lone exception, the county's five other unions have agreed to a one-year extension.

Although the Office of the Budget predicts the county will end the year with a $17 million surplus, Neall repeated his intention to increase that balance to protect Anne Arundel's credit rating.

Neall said his refusal this year to bail out the school board with a fourth-quarter transfer will set a precedent for how all departments pay for spending.

"The school board keeps coming back to some sort of arrangement that they looked for and expected a fourth-quarter transfer and it was an institution," Neall said. "I would like to have a more wholesome budget process. I would like a little bit more honesty in budgeting."

Neall said he plans legislation to stop the use of planned surpluses as a routine source of financing. The practice, adopted by Neall's predecessor, O. James Lighthizer, boosted the 1990 budget by $40 million.

In the coming months, Neall said he plans to announce his first steps to fulfill campaign pledges to strengthen environmental protection, economic development and minority contracting. But initiatives this year will be modest because new spending must be balanced with cuts elsewhere, he said.

"You just have to understand that this is a zero-sum game," he said. "Withoutany new revenue, anything new that I attempt will come at the expense of something old."

But for all the talk about controlling spending, anyone expecting a property tax cut is likely to be disappointed this year.

"Unless money drops out of the sky, I'm looking at a stable tax rate right now," Neall said.

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