Budget Pragmatism in Arundel

May 02, 1991

Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall's fiscal and management skills were never more in evidence than in his $616.6 million spending blueprint for 1992. In a budget season punctuated by red ink and tough decisions, the news yesterday from Arundel Center was no layoffs or higher taxes and increased spending on schools and public safety.

Granted, Anne Arundel's $8.8 million shortfall is considerably less extreme than that of its neighbors and Mr. Neall inherited a hefty $40 million surplus from the Lighthizer administration. What distinguishes the Neall budget is not so much the austerity but the artful compromises.

By offering merit and step increases, but no cost of living raises, the county executive persuaded five of the county's six employee unions to defer negotiations until next year. A similar compromise convinced the county's teacher's union -- one of the state's most vocal -- to forgo raises in return for non-financial contract gains. He has created 80 new public safety and teaching jobs by juggling 80 unfilled positions and slicing capital spending by 18 percent to $95.6 million. His thoughtful, common-sense approach toward the unions worked splendidly; his other steps amounted to prudent, necessary redeployment of resources.

Mr. Neall's spending plan is long on pragmatism and short on pain. Yet it is already being denounced in some quarters. Tax protesters are miffed at his failure to hew to a campaign promise to cap growth in property taxes at 5 percent. Had he done this, the county's rate would have dropped from $2.46 per $100 of assessed valuation to $2.38. The Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association, the group that led last fall's property tax revolt, will lobby the county council to lower the tax rate -- even if it means layoffs.

Fiscal reality forced Mr. Neall to renege on his pledge to cap property tax growth. Homeowners will face higher property tax bills because of rising assessments. Still, we fail to see -- and hope the county council will fail to see -- the rationale for firing workers to shave a few pennies from the property tax rate. Mr. Neall's spending plan represents a reasoned approach to tough times that penalizes neither school spending nor taxpayers. Though it is bound to suffer some fine-tuning along the way, the first Neall budget deserves the support of the county council and taxpayers.

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