Council to tackle budget differently

April 22, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Trying to examine Baltimore County's massive $1.1 billion budget with one month of part-time scrutiny is nothing if not frustrating for County Council members.

So council Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd, has changed the rules of the game this year to give the council more muscle in dealing with County Executive Roger B. Hayden's spending plan.

Whether this will matter much to the taxpayers remains to be seen. But Mr. Ruppersberger and several colleagues say it will give them more of a check on the executive's power.

Even Mr. Hayden approves of the changes.

"I don't mind. We welcome the examination," he said yesterday.

The administration has had most of the year to concoct its budget, with a score of analysts to buttress the plan and hide its bureaucratic secrets.

In years past, however, the seven council members have approached the task piecemeal. Each member focused on pet portions of the budget with an overall goal of limiting property tax increases.

The council gets the budget in mid-April each year and has until June 1 to make whatever cuts it wishes. In practical terms, however, the council members have about a month to make their decisions in time for the budget to be printed and presented to the public in late May.

The council may cut the executive budget but has no power to add funds.

The council began flexing its muscles several years ago when it started using its auditor to examine one department each year for efficiency. Last spring the council approved money to hire its own budget analyst to work in auditor Stephen L. Kirchner's office.

Now the council is set to speed up the review process by cutting out what it sees as pro-forma jargon and useless ceremony.

The start of public budget work sessions was delayed so the council's auditor can give department heads written questions, instead of allowing them to make speeches about why their budget shouldn't be cut, Mr. Ruppersberger said.

Officials from agencies the council doesn't control, such as the board of elections and the state's attorney's office, won't even be interviewed this year.

"We don't want to micro-manage," Mr. Ruppersberger said. For example, he doesn't plan to ask why officials want to spend more on copying paper next year than they did this year. "Trying to find $50 in cuts -- where does that get us?" he asked.

Towson Councilman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, agreed. "I don't feel the amount of time we have gives us a real handle on the budget," he said.

Councilman William A. Howard IV, R-6th, said the council should be a more powerful player in county government. "The budget shouldn't be in the hands of just one branch of government," he said.

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