Council Nibbles, But Takes No Big Bites From Neall Budget

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

A typographical error perhaps summed up how the county government came to pass a $616.6 million budget for fiscal 1992 Friday.

There was much head-shaking and laughter in the County Council chambers latethat afternoon when an amendment was circulated that would have slashed the Board of Education's administrative budget from almost $12.6 million to $1.8 million.

The amendment left off a digit, increasing by $10 million the cutproposed

by Councilwoman Diane Evans, R-Severna Park, the council's most outspoken critic of school board profligacy.

But when the corrected amendment came down, Evans could not muster enough support to shift $846,510 from administration and pupil services management into school maintenance.

After Evans' cuts were shot down, Councilman George Bachman, D-Linthicum, still voted in favor of boosting school maintenance. "This is going to be fun," he said. "I'm going to vote 'yes' to see where we get the money."

In the end, the council added $200,000 to school system maintenance, but only after passing 126other amendments that shifted millions of dollars in the budget.

The only cuts Evans successfully proposed eliminated a vacant councilclerical position, at a savings of $26,000, and trimmed the council auditor's food allowance by $1,000.

And so went this month, as thecouncil nibbled around the edges of a spending plan that, when passed Friday, matched exactly the $616,623,550 figure submitted by freshman County Executive Robert R. Neall.

That's only $550,110 less than the 1991 budget left behind by Neall's predecessor, Democrat O. James Lighthizer, and it relies on the same property tax rate of $2.46 per $100 of assessed value.

With income tax growth down 80 percent and business-related taxes dropping, property tax collections have swelled from less than 34 percent to almost 38 percent of county revenue. With rising assessments, the average household will pay the equivalent of a 19-cent increase in the property tax rate.

That's hardlythe major financial overhaul Neall promised last year when he ran for election under the "Slasher" rubric he earned as the Republican's fiscal watchdog when he was House of Delegates minority leader.

In contrast to Lighthizer's champagne celebration after his final budgetpassed, Neall handed out bottles of Thunderbird green apple wine to the council and staff members.

But Lighthizer's history of budget surpluses left Neall the fiscally sound county that is able this yearto maintain public safety, hire 36 new teachers, launch new offices dedicated to environmental protection and management analysis, avoid layoffs and pay for rank-and-file merit raises.

"He left the county in relatively good shape," Neall said of his predecessor. "But the (surplus) drawdown from $52 million to $13 million (from 1989 to 1990) going into a recession didn't help.

"There ought to be a rule against spending surpluses in an election year."

Neall said the testof his campaign promise -- including a pledge to cut property taxes enough to hold revenue growth to 5 percent -- will have to wait untilhe completes his four years in office.

However, he pronounced himself satisfied with his first budget, especially since counties from Howard to Montgomery to Prince

George's have had to raise taxes, lay off employees and cut back on services.

"Hold me accountable against the world," Neall said, "but I can't insure the people of Anne Arundel County against the world."

Beginning this year, Neall said, he plans to lower the cost of government step by step and find waysto relieve the burden on property taxpayers.

After years of compliance under Lighthizer, the council challenged Neall by cutting $317,000 in overtime that he wanted to help change the firefighters' work week from 52 hours to 50.

Council members complained that no otherunion was getting a pay raise and that the fire department should hire more people if it spends $2.4 million in overtime.

Neall was disappointed by the cut to the only union that backed his election, but, he concluded, "We can live with it."

Fire chief Paul Haigley, who still won most of the overtime money he requested, said the cut could force him to lay off as many as three firefighters.

"That's theequivalent of closing one fire station," fire union president Frank Stokes complained.

Budget director Dennis Parkinson said, "The only decision the council has made is that they will condone the fire department running short."

A $150,000 pension increase that Neall wanted to defer for volunteer firefighters was restored.

The councilidentified one area in which Neall can start saving money. It tied up school construction money in the county's general fund until the school board considers redistricting countywide as a way of using excess classroom space.

The scheme, pushed by council auditor Joseph Novotny, will take control of money for the North County school expansion from the school board to the county.

"What I wanted to make sure of is that the council had the commitment to do this and the Board of Education would not be holding the bag," Novotny said.

In the short run, the plan helped add $15 million to Neall's $95.6 million capital budget request by authorizing $17 million to convert Lindale Junior High School into the new North County High School.

In the long run, the council and administration want to see if drawing new school boundaries would save between $50 to $100 million in expansion costs throughout the county.

But Bachman's question about where the money will come from remains paramount as the county starts looking for as much as $100 million to either expand or replace the Detention Center in Parole. The budget office has to notify the state this monththat it will need a lot of financial help beginning in 1995.

"AllI want to make sure is that we're getting in line before everybody else," Parkinson said."

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