Hickey revises budget

May 01, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey offered the County Council a "modest proposal" yesterday aimed at giving the school board most of what it wants for the coming fiscal year without raising taxes or cutting requests from other departments.

If accepted, the three-part proposal would salvage many of the programs that could be lost if the council accepts the $4.3 million cut County Executive Charles I. Ecker made in the school board request. The board had asked for $166.6 million in local funding for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Mr. Ecker approved ++ $162.3 million.

The council may restore what the executive cut from the school board request, but to do so, it must raise taxes or cut elsewhere in the county budget.

Earlier last week, other department heads pleaded with the council not to cut their budgets, saying that it could mean a loss of services.

If the council were to fully fund the school budget -- as all but one of the 24 people testifying at yesterday's hearing requested -- it would have to raise the property tax rate 7 cents or make cuts elsewhere.

The tax rate, which is $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, has already been raised once during the council's term -- 14 cents in 1991 -- and council members are reluctant to raise it again, especially in an election year. All five council members are

seeking re-election or running for other offices this fall. They are expected to consider Mr. Hickey's proposal very seriously.

The proposal consists of three elements. The first calls for Mr. Ecker to add $589,000 to the budget for employee Social Security payments. Mr. Ecker's failure to include that was "an unintended oversight," Mr. Hickey said he believes.

Second, Mr. Hickey would use five-year bonds rather than operating budget money to put older schools on a par technologically with newer ones. The county could then cut $1.6 million from the operating budget, yet move ahead with the improvements, Mr. Hickey said.

Third, Mr. Hickey assumes the school board will be getting another $1.1 million from the county in January. Mr. Ecker has said he will add that amount to the school budget if local income tax revenues exceed estimates by 10 percent. Mr. Hickey is optimistic that income tax revenues will surpass estimates.

"These three steps, if taken, reduce the gap of $4.3 million to about $1 million," Mr. Hickey said. "The Board of Education will reduce [its] budget request by that amount even though it will mean some painful and difficult choices."

Mr. Hickey urged the council and the executive to accept the proposal in the same spirit that he said led to the restoration of some money Mr. Ecker cut from the school board's capital budget request.

Mr. Ecker told the council in a letter Friday that he intends to increase the construction request for a new Eastern High School by $1.3 million for fiscal 1995 -- which is what the school board wanted.

Mr. Ecker said he is making the restoration reluctantly because the school board last year authorized $857,000 more than was approved for design and construction of the new high school.

Mr. Ecker also objected to a 31 percent increase -- $619,000 -- in the request for equipment.

He told council members that hewill amend his proposed capital budget by the requested amounts "because the plans are at a stage now that any adjustment would mean a delay of the project."

"I do not believe that it was right that the approved construction figures were ignored, but I do not want to penalize the students, staff and parents . . .," Mr. Ecker said.

Most of the 67 people at yesterday's hearing seemed unimpressed by what Mr. Ecker had restored Instead they talked about the $4.3 million he cut from the operating budget. Unless the money is restored, the disparity between older schools and new ones will increase, class sizes will expand, and plans to include children with special needs in regular classes will have to proceed without the personnel to make the program a success, they said.

Most of those at the hearing quietly expressed a sense of betrayal, saying they assumed the school system would get what it asked for in the coming year because of sacrifices it

made in the previous three.

Since 1991, the board has cut its budget by $11.4 million, which has "played havoc throughout the school system," said board President Dana Hanna.

By refusing to fully fund the Board of Education's request, "the county executive is turning his head, ignoring elementary school needs," said Libby Killo, first vice president of the Bollman Bridge Parent Teachers' Association.

The council will hold a work session on the education portion of the budget at 8 p.m. Thursday. It will set the tax rate and vote May 23 on the overall budget for fiscal 1995.

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