Big bucks for big-ticket items Capital budget process will set local priorities for years to come.

February 07, 1996

RIGHT NOW, Anne Arundel County is hammering out a capital budget for fiscal year 1996-97, a process that impacts taxpayers more than any other. Not to be confused with the operating budget -- money used for salaries, office supplies and other materials needed to run the government day-to-day -- the capital budget is a list of big-ticket items: schools and other buildings, computer systems, major equipment, landfill cleanup.

Every year, the county continues paying off projects already begun and commits itself to new ones, many of which are so expensive that they, too, require spreading the cost over a number of years and perhaps going into debt. In the current year, the county's capital spending totals $129 million, including $35 million worth of new projects. That does not include $41.6 million taxpayers borrowed toward renovation of the county courthouse in Annapolis.

Not only are these huge sums, but taxpayers feel the economic impact of such projects long after they have finished building or buying them. Why? Because once we've put up a new jail or school, we have to pay to staff, supply, run and maintain it, year after year. Plus, if we've borrowed money, we'll be paying interest for years to come. The capital budget the county is working on will drive the size of future operating budgets and the amount of taxes paid for a long time, if not permanently.

As important as is the capital program, it's a fairly safe bet that most countians have virtually no idea how a multi-million dollar recreation center evolves from an idea in someone's head to an actual building. They need to know.

The process works like this: The school board decides what new schools, renovations and repairs it wants each fall. That list goes to the state (which often supplies aid for school construction and renovation) and to the county administration, which is where it -- and every other county department's requests -- is now. A seven-member panel called the "Planning Advisory Board" is reviewing all requests for new buildings and other big items, and will make recommendations to County Executive John G. Gary. He must submit his spending plan to the County Council by May 1; after public hearings, the council will make the final decision before construction can begin.

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