Neall Fulfills Vision in Anne Arundel

May 05, 1994

There is little fault to find and little controversy to forecast in Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall's fiscal 1995 spending plan. The $711 million operating budget -- Mr. Neall's last -- marks the culmination of a new kind of government, crafted by the executive over four lean, difficult years in preparation for an even more difficult future. During fiscal 1993 and 1994, as Mr. Neall completed the dirty work of reorganization and paring down the work force, many questioned the wisdom of what he was trying to accomplish. But this year's budget reveals the purpose behind the pain: a smaller, less expensive government that maintains basic services, a bureaucracy designed to function under a suffocating cap on property tax revenue, and a clear set of spending priorities.

This is a fair budget in that it makes up for some of the excruciating austerity of the early '90s, in which the recession and reductions in state aid forced severe cuts. More than half of the $47 million increase in revenue will cover a pay raise for county employees, who have not had one in four years. Contributions to Baltimore cultural institutions are up from last year's budget level of zero. No additional departments or programs have been eliminated.

No one should mistake these provisions as a sign that government under Mr. Neall is edging back to what it was in the 1980s, when expenditures grew by a whopping 9.7 percent annually. The budget makes it clear that government has changed to fit a new era. A managed health care plan for county workers, designed to save millions over the long haul, is in place. Community promotions grants are gone. And, except for priorities like education, which got 128 new positions and accounts for 58 percent of the total budget, discretionary spending is virtually nil.

Taxpayers should be pleased. The property tax rate drops by 3 cents to $2.35 to meet the cap, and, though fees for water, sewer and trash collection increase, so do services. The total additional cost to the average homeowner is only $5.68 a month.

County Council members, who must approve the budget by June 1, should fend off the temptation to be election-year heroes by reducing the tax rate further. Further cuts in the tax rate now will multiply the effects of the cap, which will be hard enough to deal with on its own in coming years -- especially if Mr. Neall's successor is not as adept at, or as committed to, running a government that suits these tight fiscal times.

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