Neall's Vision Fulfilled

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 downsizing, many questioned the wisdom of what he was trying to accomplish. But this year's budget reveals the purpose: 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 that 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 pay raises 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.

However, no one should mistake these provisions as a sign that government under Mr. Neall is edging back to what it was in the 1980s. 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 promotion grants are gone. And, except for priorities such as education, which got 128 new positions and accounts for 58 percent of the budget, discretionary spending is nearly 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 not try to be election-year heroes by reducing the tax rate further. Additional cuts in the rate now will multiply the effects of the tax cap, which will be hard enough to deal with on its own -- 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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