Panel urges cutting council budget power

January 31, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

An advisory committee has recommended that the Anne Arundel County Council be stripped of its power to restore school board budget requests deleted by the county executive.

The Spending Affordability Committee, in its third annual report issued last Friday, also said County Executive Robert R. Neall should limit his next budget to $639.9 million, an increase of $12.9 million over last year's total of $627 million. The figure does not include any money appropriated to Mr. Neall's "rainy day fund," which stands at $10 million.

In its report, the committee strongly recommended increased accountability over the Board of Education budget, which it noted often accounts for more than 50 percent of the county budget and is "a major force in establishing required levels of property and income taxes."

With other county departments, the County Council can only reduce the budget requests submitted by the county executive. Only in the case of the Board of Education can the Council restore items thrown out by the executive.

A measure to take away the council's power would be subject to the General Assembly's approval.

Only Baltimore County prohibits its council from restoring deleted school programs. State Sen. Habern W. Freeman Jr. of Harford County has introduced legislation in the General Assembly to take that power away from the Harford County Council.

The committee said school spending was a special concern during its deliberations.

"We have been told by virtually every segment of the government, including a representative of the school board, that there is no control exercised on that budget, beyond the school board," said Bob Douglas, a lawyer and Pasadena resident who is a member of the advisory committee.

The committee said that once a particular budget request is deleted, the council's ability to restore the funds leads to a deluge of special interest pressures on council members. Therefore, budget items are restored that may not make fiscal sense.

"It's tough when you're a legislator to take the statesmanlike or long view when you've got people picketing, phone calling and exerting pressure on you," Mr. Douglas said.

But Councilman David G. Boschert, who favors retaining the budget process, said those special interest groups are parents who elected him.

"These people who come before us to address us are the parents of children who attend our schools," Mr. Boschert said. "We're elected by them to make sure we do the right thing for them."

School Board President Vincent O. Leggett said he, too, opposed taking the restoration power away from the council.

"I think that the law has been working pretty well," he said. "I haven't seen many occasions that the County Council has made any extraordinary increases to the school budget."

County Executive Neall said he had not studied the committee's report and did not want to comment until he had done so.

The $639.9 million spending cap recommended in the report is based on what the committee believes county taxpayers can afford to pay for services, based on the percentage of their personal income is consumed by taxes. The committee recommended that spending levels in the next fiscal year should not exceed 5.69 percent of personal income, the same level recommended for last year.

"We basically have concluded that $5.69 of every $100 you make a fair and equitable amount to pay the county government for what it gives you," Mr. Douglas said.

The report also recommended that any surplus revenues in next year's budget should not be spent on capital projects or other expenses.

"What we've also been saying is, 'Look, if it turns out you get more revenues than expenditures, we don't think you should use that as manna from heaven and figure out ways to spend it,' " Mr. Douglas said.

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