A mere four-and-a-half months after his surprising landslide victory, Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden presented his first budget yesterday. Just as he had promised, he reined-in spending and kept tax increases to a minimum.
Mr. Hayden, the first Republican executive since 1966, limited the overall increase in the $1.1 billion proposal to two percent and recommended a two-cent property tax cut. For county employees he offered no pay hike or cost of living raise but no layoffs, either. In fact, the executive wants to add 239 teachers to cope with rising enrollment in the school system. "I believe this budget reflects, both in spirit and substance, the charge that was given to us by the people of Baltimore County in last year's election," he proclaimed.
Indeed it does. But the budget also is a reflection of the prudent stewardship of prior administrations. In contrast to nearby suburban jurisdictions, Baltimore County has been able to weather the recession without acute budget problems. Considerable credit should go to Dennis Rasmussen, the former executive. Though much maligned in public, he ran a fundamentally sound shop.
Yesterday, the seven members of the county council said they thought the executive's budget proposal was what voters wanted. Typical was the comment of Council Chairman Douglas Riley: "I, for one, don't attempt to nitpick through it."
In truth, the Hayden budget package is so austere there isn't a lot of nitpicking the council can do. Anyway, members of the council can only cut; they cannot propose new expenditures. And whether the council wants to increase parking fines by 30 percent or the cable television company's franchise fee by 7.2 percent -- both among additional revenue measures the Hayden budget proposes -- it simply does not have much choice because the budget has to be balanced somehow.
Regardless of how the council fine-tunes this budget, a property-tax increase looms next year. Labor costs and fringe benefits could make it unavoidable. If that happens, the politicians' strategy is for taxpayers and special interests, who are likely to be upset by service reductions called for in the budget, to demand higher taxes. Neither Mr. Hayden nor council members want to be the initiator.
In the meantime, the Hayden administration is embarking on a search for alternative ways to run the county's affairs. Effective July 1, it proposes to control rising health-care costs through the implementation of a self-insurance plan for the 8,000 county employees. This is a worthwhile experiment, though it could prove exceedingly expensive for the county, given the huge rise in medical costs each year. It will, though, test Mr. Hayden's claim that he can successfully run the government in Towson as if it were a business.