Arundel's finances rate 12th Survey assessed top 50 counties

July 04, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

Anne Arundel County, beset during the past two years by a recession, the loss of $65 million in state aid, and a property tax cap, still managed to snag 12th place in a national ranking of the fiscal strength of U.S. counties.

The survey, published in the June 21 issue of Chicago-based City & State magazine, assesses the 50 U.S. counties with the largest operating budgets.

Of those 50, the counties in the best fiscal shape kept spending in line with revenue, accurately projected revenue in 1992, had strong credit ratings and maintained low levels of debt, the magazine said. Topping the list were two Virginia counties. Fairfax, ranked ninth last year, headed the list; Henrico maintained its No. 2 ranking.

Last year, Anne Arundel County tied with Baltimore County for 32nd place. This year's 12th-place ranking was the highest for any Maryland county.

Other Maryland counties in the survey included 16th-ranked Montgomery, Baltimore County at 31st and Prince George's at 49th.

Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall said he was pleased by the high ranking, especially in light of recent fiscal difficulties that caused him to undertake a sweeping reorganization of county government. This led to the net elimination of 313 positions, although only 37 contract employees have been laid off.

"I am proudest that we have improved our financial position without draconian cuts in service or in our work force, even in the face of reduced state funding, and growing education and public safety needs," Mr. Neall said in a statement.

Lousie Hayman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Neall, said the county had done most of the things the magazine identified as criteria for a well-managed county, including maintaining a fund balance and a rainy day fund for emergencies, and keeping expenditure in line with revenue.

"We seemed to tick off every one of those things on the list," Ms. Hayman said. "And I think overall that the county executive has not been afraid to make fiscal decisions that may have been tough in the short run but were worth it in the long run."

Dennis Parkinson, Mr. Neall's chief administrative officer, said that this year's survey was the first to take into account the fact that Anne Arundel, along with other Maryland counties, is among the few nationwide to pay for public education.

Because local government is responsible for education, the job of governing is more difficult for Maryland counties, said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

"It boils down to the fact that counties in Maryland represent a greater number of people and have greater responsibility than the other counties in the nation," Mr. Bliden said.

The county has tried to build up its rainy day fund. Last year, the county squirreled away $10 million; this year, it set aside another $2 million. The $12 million total is about 1.9 percent of the county's budget, short of the 3 percent, or $18 million, preferred by most bond rating agencies, Mr. Parkinson said.

Still, the favorable rating points to solid, innovative fiscal management in the face of hard financial times, Mr. Parkinson said. "We have not shut down fire stations, we have not shut down libraries, we have not shut down parks. And a lot of jurisdictions have had to do those things," he said.

The magazine's survey takes into consideration the figures from 1992 and budget estimates from 1993. The tax cap -- which limits the yearly increase in total property tax revenue the county can collect to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less -- takes effect this fiscal year.

"The tax cap is going to become increasingly difficult to cope with," Ms. Hayman said. "The county executive knows and all his fiscal advisers realize that the first couple of years are probably .. not going to be that dreadful. But it's going to get tighter and tighter."

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