When Robert R. Neall captured the county executive's office last November, environmentalists held their breath.
Last week, they exhaled.
Neall, who environmental groups say had a poor record during three terms in the House of Delegates, proposed the first budget cuts Wednesday in the 25-year history of charter government.
But the $616.6 million spending plan would leave the county's environmental protection programs largely intact. And it would create a new Division of Environmental and Land Use Programs within the executive's office thatwould "institutionalize an environmental conscience within county government," Neall said.
The budget would pare 80 jobs from the payroll but protect the 22 inspectors who enforce the county's environmental protection laws. Expansion of curbside recycling would continue on schedule, and a division within the Department of Public Works would be created to oversee the county's $1.2 million recycling program.
Environmental leaders said they haven't had time to evaluate Neall's budget fully. But given that it comes in the same lean fiscal yearin which they struggled to preserve the state's environmental programs, most are pleased by what they have seen so far.
"After he was elected, everyone thought the environment would just go downhill," said Lina Vlavianos, a Millersville activist and a member of Neall's transition team. "So far it has not."
"Everyone is anxious this yearto keep taxpayers happy by trying to trim funds and avoid passing new fees," said Susan Beck Brown, chairwoman of the South County Environmental Commission. "Too often, the first programs to be cut are environmental."
Some environmental programs would be cut. Neall's budget would halve an annual $60,000 grant to Maryland Save Our Streams' pilot education project on the Severn River. The project was started two years ago with public and private money.
"If there is a commitment to the environment, and there apparently is, I can't believe we'll be cut out," said Peg Burroughs, a board member of the Glen Burnie-based group. "It would cut the legs right out from under us."
Neall's spending plan also would:
* Create a four-person environmental unit within the executive's office to supervise the county's planning, public works, utilities and enforcement agencies.
* Expand curbside recycling to 50,000 of the 106,000 homes served by county trash trucks and spend $300,000 on the county's household hazardous waste collections.
* Avoid cuts in the enforcement staff by increasingpermit fees.
* Spend $100,000 studying general growth in Odenton and transportation problems in Parole.
* Funnel $100,000 into a loan fund to help low-income residents replace failing septic systems.
* Increase dumping fees for residential and commercial customers to finance landfill and recycling operations. The charge for residential trash pickup would go from $70 to $90 a year; the tipping fee for private trash haulers would rise from $33 to $50 a ton.
The environmental unit within Neall's office is an alternative to his campaign promise to create a county Department of the Environment, which wouldrequire a charter amendment on the 1992 ballot. It also was one of the recommendations made by Neall's transition team.
Although many activists saw his proposed environmental agency as more style than substance last summer, Vlavianos said such an agency could be crucial.
"What should be protected all too often falls through the cracks,"she said. "I would like to see a department that in essence becomes a steward of the environment and with them stops the buck."
Otherswere pleasantly surprised that there would be no cuts in the number of inspectors who enforce county restrictions on rubble landfills, reforestation requirements and other environmental protections.
"Oneof the weakest parts of the county is its enforcement," South CountyEnvironmental Commission's Brown said. "The County Council passes more and more environmental legislation and then doesn't add any more people."
"He's really exceeded our expectations because we expectedsomething really bad," said Mary Rosso, president of the Glen Burnie-based Maryland Waste Coalition.