Hayden gambling his political future on economy

April 25, 1992|By Larry Carson and Meredith Schlow | Larry Carson and Meredith Schlow,Staff Writers

Roger B. Hayden could be betting his political future on the economy.

The Baltimore County executive has asked the County Council to approve only half of the piggyback tax increase authorized by the General Assembly, to fund a budget that keeps next year's spending at virtually the same level as this year's and leaves the county's most vital services hurting.

The executive is gambling that the recession will end in the next 11 months. If it does, he will have enough new tax money to hire more teachers, police officers and firefighters, and perhaps give county workers pay raises in fiscal 1994. If it doesn't, Mr. Hayden, who was elected on a wave of anti-tax sentiment, may well face the unpalatable task of having to ask the County Council for yet another increase in the piggyback tax to avoid further cuts in service.

That could be a political liability not just for Mr. Hayden, but also would leave the seven council members, five of whom were also elected on the protest vote in 1990, with an even tougher decision than the one this year.

"This was the year to ask for a tax increase," said an irritated Douglas B. Riley, a Republican councilman from Towson. "I think he [Mr. Hayden] hurts himself politically if he has to come back next year and ask for more."

But the executive himself insists his decision to ask for a 55 percent piggyback tax instead of the full 60 percent authorized by the General Assembly was not politically motivated. "I'm not a politician," he said. Mr. Hayden noted that this is the first time he has held elected office, and said he can return to private business if he is not re-elected.

But Councilman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat from the north county who survived the anti-incumbent sweep in 1990, said he supports Mr. Hayden's decision to seek only half of the increase available to him. "Maybe he showed leadership," Mr. Ruppersberger said. "I see each year as a different year."

But School Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel said the piggyback tax increase will anger people who oppose tax increases, those who want more money for public safety and education as well as county workers who are unhappy with a second straight year of no cost-of-living pay raises. All told, Dr. Dubel called the executive's budget for fiscal 1993 a "lose-lose" proposition.

Even with the tax increase, Mr. Hayden's budget proposal will not generate enough money to hire any of the 150 teachers the school system says it needs to accommodate the 3,600 new students expected in September. The schools will also lose 13 assistant principals and 46 central office staff members. And no positions will be added for guidance counselors, librarians, reading teachers, art, music or physical education teachers, school psychologists or pupil personnel workers.

There won't be enough space to serve many 4-year-olds who qualify for the prekindergarten program, designed to help disadvantaged youngsters. The county will not replace 125 old buses, and $140,000 for the driver's education program has been eliminated.

As a result, the fee next year for county students who want to take a driver's education class could increase from $65 to more ** than $140, said Dr. Dubel, who called the proposed school budget "the most regressive . . . since the height of the Great Depression."

Under Mr. Hayden's spending plan, the police budget would be cut by $5.6 million from this year and the Fire Department would be forced to get by on $3.7 million less. There wouldn't be enough money to fill 150 vacant police jobs or 97 vacant firefighters' positions.

Fire Chief Elwood H. Banister said that under the proposed budget, he will not be able to restore full crews to the double engine companies or the ladder trucks.

The eight double engine companies are now using two-member instead of four-member crews; ladder truck crews will remain cut from five members to four. And cutbacks in emergency medical units will be retained as well, he said.

Police officers on patrol will still have to park their cruisers to save gas. And detectives and crime prevention experts will continue to be assigned to street patrol.

The effort to keep up street patrols is "crippling the rest of the department," said spokesman E. Jay Miller.

Because nobody would get what they want and everyone is already unhappy, perhaps the thing to do this year, some council members say privately, is to cut from the proposed budget the $25 million the piggyback tax increase is expected to produce -- and not increase the tax at all.

Several members are considering slashing the $8 million that Mr. Hayden plans to spend for employees' longevity and merit pay increases. There is also sentiment for cutting the $5.5 million rainy day fund.

Since charter government began 35 years ago, no County Council has ever cut anything approaching that amount. But the theory behind this strategy is that all the fiscal pain could be concentrated in the next fiscal year, without arousing taxpayer anger. Then if new taxes were needed in 1994, Mr. Hayden could ask for all he really needs.

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