Austerity in Arundel

May 02, 1991

Bob Neall calls county government "the company." We want to run the company efficiently, he says. We want to be sure the company's in good shape. And the Anne Arundel County executive is off to a promising start.

Neall's first budget -- a business-like, bottom-line approach to county services -- is, in a word, austere. For the first time in the history of charter government, the county budget will be lower than it was the previous year. Yet Neall has proposed no layoffs. And though 80 vacant positions were cut, 80 new ones were added. So the total number of government workers stays intact. In addition, Neall managed to provide an increase, albeit a small one, for the Department of Education, including 35 new teachers and five new after-school programs. Essential services like uniformed fire and police positions will still be fully funded, and water and sewer service will be extended. Recycling is also slated to increase, with countywide curbside pickup in fiscal year 1993.

Cuts mostly come among frills that were affordable in the boom years -- the county's beautification program, for example, and its once-huge, pay-as-you-go fund, which allowed Arundel to plan impressive capital projects without incurring debt. But all told, the quality of life in Arundel will remain pretty much intact.

This is possible in part because Neall is a good manager and in part because his predecessor was. Neall, for instance, began his term by honestly laying the recession realities on the line with county workers, and then deftly negotiating. As a result, all Arundel's unions but one have agreed to forgo pay raises next year; in return Neall promised to continue merit and step increases. Still, the executive could never have pulled off this budget balancing act without the $52.6 million surplus left by the Lighthizer administration. Neall used $39 million of it to balance his budget.

As such, Neall's budget -- like those in every jurisdiction -- is a fiscal Band Aid. Homeowners still want a lower property tax rate, and the executive wants to accommodate. But property taxes, now 38 percent of the budget, are the strongest performer among general fund revenues. Most other sources are dwindling. Moreover, Neall's budget leaves a surplus of only $7.7 million -- one-seventh of what he inherited, and not much of a cushion.

Under Neall's budget, the county will indeed be well positioned to take advantage of good economic times when they come. Still, if they don't come soon, Arundel next year may be, in the words of the executive, "in deep yogurt."

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