Hayden budget lands as a balm for anger

April 15, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden's $1.26 billion election year budget is a fiscal document that poses a political question.

Will the money the Republican incumbent has included for pay raises, more teachers and police, for school construction, expanded Sunday library hours and a variety of other goodies be enough to blunt voter anger born of three years of cuts, layoffs and closures?

"I think in politics, people have short memories," said Democratic County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a 5th District Democrat, after he and his colleagues heard the executive's budget message yesterday.

Fueled by higher-than-expected income tax revenues, the budget contains something for almost everyone.

It also comes in just under the council's 4.8 percent limit on spending increases.

First, there is no property or income tax increase. Unless the council cuts the budget, the property tax rate will remain at $2.865 per $100 of assessed valuation.

Even so, the owner of an "average" county home worth $117,885 can expect a tax bill $31 higher than this year's -- the result of slowly rising assessments.

Mr. Hayden gave a larger-than-expected 4 percent increase to most of the county's 19,000 employees, who have suffered furloughs, layoffs and frozen salaries for his entire term so far.

Teachers would get a 3 percent across-the-board increase, with another 1 percent for the school board to use to negotiate restructured salary scales.

He also announced an initiative to revitalize the county's older communities and prevent the spread of urban blight.

Saying he had been "deeply pained" by his past inability to spend more on education as county executive -- after serving 12 years on the school board -- he had more good news for students, parents and administrators.

The school board got the 173 new teachers and a variety of other positions it had asked for -- enough to maintain current class size as the school system's growing enrollment pushes 100,000 next year.

Mr. Hayden also gave the board an extra $5.2 million that it had requested for schools in low-income areas, and a like amount for computers, books and classroom materials elsewhere.

The capital budget includes eight elementary school additions, the replacement of Essex Elementary School and the renovation of Towson High School as well as a variety of other projects.

There's an additional $850,000 for school maintenance.

The moves brought praise from School Superintendent Stuart Berger -- who had barely been on speaking terms with Mr. Hayden until the money made rapprochement possible -- as well as from Ray Suarez, the teachers' union president.

Mr. Hayden also increased authorized police strength by 20 slots, to 1,502 officers, and announced a pilot program that will let 31 officers drive their patrol cars home when they're off duty -- something police have long wanted.

L. Timothy Caslin, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police and a harsh critic of past cuts, called the budget "a healing process from the wounds of the last few years."

He said his union plans to be active in this year's political campaign.

Firefighters got a more liberal retirement plan that would allow them to retire after 25 years of service regardless of age, instead of waiting until they're 50 years old as they do now.

Mr. Hayden also restored staffing for some fire equipment he removed last year and added a new medic unit in the northwest county.

Users of the county's popular library system also had something to smile about for a change.

After closing the Loch Raven branch and eight minilibraries and cutting Sunday hours at many branches as part of a massive 1993 budget reduction, the executive included enough money in 1994-'95 to keep open the North Point, White Marsh, Cockeysville, Randallstown and Catonsville branches every Sunday from October through March.

The Towson branch will remain the only one open on Sunday all year round.

Mr. Hayden said he also wants to add $2.9 million to the county's "rainy day" fund to boost it to 3.25 percent of the total budget.

In announcing his fiscal 1995 plan, Mr. Hayden said his administration had "passed through the worst fiscal storm in Baltimore County's history . . . a storm of state budget cuts and national economic turmoil unknown to any of my predecessors."

County Budget Director Fred Homan said revenues grew only 2.7 percent overall, but higher income tax revenues added money during this fiscal year that officials didn't expect.

The county raised its local income tax rate from 50 percent to 55 percent of the state income tax last year to replace state aid that was cut during the recession.

Those higher income tax collections, plus a windfall from a special high-income state tax bracket that was reflected in the county's piggyback tax collections, produced the cushion.

How this will play politically remains to be seen.

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