First-ever Budget Cut Proposed

BUDGET WATCH 91 Where do all our dollars go?

Neall Also Strikes Truce With Tax Revolt Leaders

May 02, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

County Executive Robert R. Neall proposed cutting the budget for thefirst time in charter history yesterday and struck a truce with AnneArundel tax revolt leaders.

Despite a recessionary projection that revenue will drop $6.4 million next year, Neall proposed a $616.6 million operating budget that is down only $800,000 from fiscal year 1991, which ends June 30.

* See related stories Page 4

Neall, a Republican known for hisrecord of slashing budgets in the House of Delegates, won praise forpreserving education, public safety and social services and expanding environmental protection without raising taxes.

In a year when the state and other counties have slashed spending and laid off workers to cope with deficits, County Council members breathed a sign of relief that Anne Arundel had built up surpluses under O. James Lighthizer, Neall's Democratic predecessor.

An $8.8-million shortfall in revenue this year leaves Neall with only a $7.7 million (1.2 percent) cushion to satisfy New York bond raters. Still, his budget had enoughroom to maintain teacher-student ratios and boost the police, fire and sheriff's departments.

"It was a very responsible and responsive budget," said Council chairwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River, who was elected to a fifth term last year.

But Neall could not meet his campaign promise from last year to cut property taxes and hold revenue growth to 5 percent.

Even with the property tax rate remaining at $2.46 per $100 of assessed value, new construction and rising assessments will boost revenue by $22.6 million (10.8 percent), makingup the loss in other sources. Property tax revenue accounts for 37.6percent of Neall's budget, up from 33.9 percent this year.

"I'm not happy about that," Neall told the County Council, "but the property tax isthe only thing that's supporting this budget."

Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association president Robert Schaeffer, who lead a failedcampaign last year to set charter limits on property tax revenue, was also not happy.

But he was mollified by a last-minute meeting Tuesday night, when Neall agreed to form yet another citizen committee to develop long-term ways to relieve property taxpayers.

"It doesn't mean we're just going to go quiescent and belly-flop in the shallow water while the budget process goes on," said Schaeffer, who was elected last year to the county's Republican Central Committee. "But wewill try the cooperative route."

Schaeffer served on a spending affordability panel the council created last year, which voters replaced with a permanent charter committee.

Much of Neall's budget message was devoted to financial restructuring, designed to make up for the drag on revenue expected to continue in the coming months.

"Tight budgets are harder, but my experience tells me you can have bettergovernment as a result because you have to set priorities," Neall said.

His proposals include:

* Elimination of 80 vacant jobs countywide, freeing up money for new hiring.

* A $5.6 million package of fee increases ranging from building, electrical and plumbing permits to admissions to the county pool, parks and golf course.

* Ending the use of real estate transfer taxes to subsidize the Department of Utilities.

Neall also proposed raising the free senior admission age from 55 to 62 at county parks, setting off a wave of concern among council members.

"Is that constitutional?" asked freshman Edward Middlebrooks, D-Severn.

"It ought to be 70," replied Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, who turned 68 before winning election to a third term last year.

But the greatest debate is likely to center on a proposal to shorten the work week two hours for firefightersand emergency personnel, who gave Neall his only union endorsement last year.

Schaeffer called this "normal politics."

Neall deniedhe made any deals. But in a press briefing Tuesday, the executive suggested that the shorter work week might have played a part in getting unions to postpone renegotiating their contracts, which expire June30.

"They, like four other unions, agreed to roll their contractsand I think that's a small price to pay," Neall told reporters.

Fire personnel typically work 52 hours, living for two-day shifts in fire houses, including eight hours a night of "rack time" when they sleep.

The shorter week will require $975,000 in additional overtimepay to make up for lost hours.

Council members declined to comment on suggestions of political deals with the firefighters. But Lamb renewed a perennial council concern.

"We don't like overtime," she said. "It doesn't make sense to cut their hours and pay them more forovertime."

BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS

County Executive Robert R. Neall's proposed $616.6 million operating budget and $95.7 million capital budget for fiscal 1992 include:

* Maintaining the property tax rate at $2.46 per $100 of assessed value and at $1.31 in Annapolis;

* $341.7 million for county schools, up $11.6 million from this year; including money for 35 new teachers;

* $1.1 million for 28 new policeofficers;

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