Despite having a Republican chairman and five new members who were swept into office on a wind of tax disgust, the Baltimore County Council followed a well-worn path of symbolic budget cuts by tentatively deciding to trim one penny off the proposed county property tax rate.
Combined with the 2 cents County Executive Roger B. Hayden already proposed cutting, the council's cut would drop the rate from $2.895 to $2.865.
The average county taxpayer would still end up paying about $15 a year more in real estate tax, due to assessment increases.
The specifics the council agreed to cut in the $1.1 billion budget yesterday also followed the time-honored repertoire previous county councils have used over the past 12 years. The cuts were more a shifting of dollars than chopping back on programs or manpowers.
Using the quick calculations of Council Auditor Stephen L. Kirchner, the council tentatively decided to cut $450,000 from money appropriated for fuel and utility costs, $500,000 allotted for health insurance and $300,000 by delaying one payment for new school buses into fiscal 1993.
The members then decided to get the rest of what's needed by cutting part of the $1.2 million allotted for
Each penny on the tax rate provides $1.3 million in revenue.
The unappropriated surplus this year was estimated at $10.8 million, but Hayden told the council before yesterday's budget discussions that sinking state income tax collections have already trimmed $1.3 million off that expected overrun.
That bad news dissuaded the council members from moving ahead with a 2-cent tax cut Councilman Melvin G. Mintz, D-2nd, proposed.
Hayden said more cuts to county revenues may be in store next year if state estimates of income taxes continue to prove inflated, and if the state's own budget deficit continues to grow, endangering state aid to local subdivisions.
Dundalk Councilman Donald C. Mason, D-7th, an ardent advocate of budget cutting, failed to persuade his colleagues to make any significant cuts. Mason wanted the county to chop its property tax rate back to $2.77 per $100 of assessed value so government wouldn't gain any revenue from increasing assessments.
In fact, other than cuts John D. O'Neill, a citizen tax protest leader, suggested at Mason's invitation, the councilman did not offer any specific cuts of his own.
Yesterday's tentative agreement came over an informal lunch, and council members stressed that facts would have to be checked before the decisions become final.
For example, members were not sure if the county government and the school board are committed by contracts to buy fuel oil and gasoline at preset prices. If they are, then $250,000 of the proposed cuts might be invalid.
The commitment to a penny cut seemed solid, however, with members agreeing that any shortfall in specific cuts would come from the snow emergency fund, which would be replenished by the surplus.
The council is to formally vote on the budget and a new tax rate May 30.
Councilman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd, did get an informal commitment of support from at least five members for a plea for more money to hire more council auditors. With perhaps 10 more auditors and more council staff workers, Ruppersberger said, the council can actually investigate various county agencies year-round, and then be better prepared to make significant cuts at budget time.
He cited an audit that the county auditor's staff performed last year that showed the school system was spending perhaps $6 million more than comparable counties on school
maintenance, a fact hotly disputed by school officials. After much wrangling, the council last year agreed to a $1.75 million education budget cut.
Ruppersberger said he would be willing to make more such cuts in the future if the council has the facts and figures to justify them. Now, with a very limited auditor's staff, the manpower isn't sufficient to do such investigations, he said.
"We want to send a message that we are concerned with property taxes. This [1-cent cut] takes care of the symbolism issue," Chairman Douglas B. Riley said.