ANNAPOLIS -- Looking more like a nibbler than the budget "slasher" he claimed to be during the campaign last fall, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall submitted a budget with few painful cuts and a stable property tax rate yesterday.
For the first time in 26 years, the county executive's proposed $616.6 million budget for next year is less -- though only slightly -- than the one approved by the County Council last year.
Unlike in some neighboring counties, the proposed budget will not cause any layoffs but does require the county's 12,000 employees to forgo a cost-of-living pay raise. The proposal would funnel more money to the police department and to firefighters but reserves the largest boost for the public school system.
The spending plan is balanced, in part, by increases in a variety of fees, ranging from the cost of an overdue library book to the charge on 911 emergency calls, and by Mr. Neall's decision to keep a $2.46 tax rate, one of the lowest in the Baltimore area.
Maintaining the same tax rate will mean that many Anne Arundel property owners will pay nearly 11 percent more in taxes because of increasing assessments next year. As a candidate, Mr. Neall promised to hold property tax revenue growth to 5 percent a year.
"I'm not really happy about that," said Mr. Neall, admitting breaking his campaign pledge. "The property taxes are the only thing supporting this budget, the only thing holding it up."
County Council members said they were not surprised by the decision to maintain the tax rate. Though Anne Arundel has not been hit as hard economically as some other subdivisions, the recession has caused dramatic declines in most sources of tax revenue.
"Last year he [Mr. Neall] called us the 'tax-and-spend' County Council, but he's keeping the same tax rate we approved last year," said Councilman David G. Boschert, D-4th. "This is a vindication of that decision."
Council Chairwoman Virginia P. Clagett, D-7th, said she was generally happy with Mr. Neall's budget, particularly with the extra aid for schools, police and fire crews.
Maintaining the same property tax rate "is for the good of the county in the long run," she said.
Other council members said they may seek to lower the tax rate by cutting the budget, a curious turning of the tables on the fiscally conservative Republican county executive.
Last year, then-County Executive O. James Lighthizer, a Democrat, and incumbent council members had to defend their spending habits in the face of a proposal to cap prop
erty tax revenues. The measure died at the ballot box in November but was generally seen as a boost for the Neall campaign in a close race.
The leader of last year's tax revolt declined to criticize Mr. Neall's decision to maintain the property tax rate. Robert C. Schaeffer, president of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association, said he has received assurances from Mr. Neall that he will look to reduce property taxes when the economy rebounds.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not happy about $2.46," said Mr. Schaeffer, a Severna Park resident and member of the county's Republican Central Committee. But "this isn't the year to fight like hell over it," he said. "As an alternative, we think maybe we can get together with him [Mr. Neall] and work something out."
Mr. Neall's budget proposal contains a handful of new initiatives including a special loan program to help homeowners replace failing septic systems. Money is also set aside to study traffic congestion in the Parole area of Annapolis and to expand prison inmate work programs.
The proposed budget calls for spending about $11.6 million more on schools -- a 3.5 percent increase -- which will allow for hiring 35 more teachers. Police would also receive money to fill 32 vacant positions frozen during this year's budget-balancing efforts.
The county's Detention Center, which is adding 100 more inmates beds next year, would be allowed to hire 15 more detention officers.
The only county employee union to endorse Mr. Neall during last year's campaign would also receive
an extra benefit. The workweek for paid firefighters and emergency rescue crews would be reduced from 52 to 50 hours at a cost of nearly $1 million under Mr. Neall's budget.
Mr. Neall denied the move was a political payback to the firefighters.
"That's poppycock. Who would think that?" Mr. Neall told reporters at a briefing on the budget. "It's sad that you've become so cynical."
Sacrificed in the budget are Friday evening hours for public libraries, middle-management training programs and cash incentives, and the annual picnic for senior citizens, among other things.
Mr. Neall's budget proposes the creation of a four-person "manage
ment analysis team" and a four-person environmental unit. Both would operate in the county executive's office.
The creation of the environmental unit means Mr. Neall has abandoned another campaign pledge, to create a separate county Department of the Environment.
"If I can't do it from the fourth floor [the county executive's office], I still may pursue that," Mr. Neall said.
The county executive also proposed yesterday a $95.6 million capital budget to finance a variety of construction projects. County officials said the county's strong financial standing has already helped them secure a low-interest rate on bonds.