Budget fight puts Gary in the spotlight His blunt words put his personality at center of debate

'He forgot he was elected'

Hard line on raises, school construction sparks protests

March 10, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

County Executive John G. Gary's week started with a full-throated labor protest calling his no-raise policy crippling to working families. It ended amid a barrage of phone calls from PTAs, community groups and parents assailing his scaled-back school-construction plan for next year.

It is budget season 1996, a winter of widespread discontent.

"I've never seen a budget process start earlier," said Diane R. Evans, an Arnold Republican who chairs the County Council. "Has the heat been turned up? Yes."

The reason, in part, is that Mr. Gary, through a mix of bluster and reasonableness, has made himself the center of the current debate over county finances. His own words, often delivered unvarnished by diplomacy, have turned early budget posturing into a referendum on his personality:

Is John Gary a tyrant or a tactician, a bully or a fiscal savior?

"In some ways, he's not a bad person," said Thomas R. Twombly, a school board member and critic of Mr. Gary, a Republican. "But he forgot he was elected."

Sequestered with aides in his Arundel Center offices, the blunt-spoken Mr. Gary has been plotting a political strategy aimed at bringing the council a balanced budget by May 1 with sensible savings and no new taxes.

To do so, he has looked to schools and public-employee unions to sacrifice as he fulfills a campaign promise to be a cost-conscious manager. Both groups have well-organized po- litical support, which has rallied to pound Mr. Gary's proposals.

Low property tax revenues, swelling pension benefits and an inability to borrow as much as his predecessors did for new construction are conspiring to make this year's budget drum-tight.

But Mr. Gary has often flexed his political muscle instead of outlining the fiscal motivation for his reforms. He has pitched his plans to angry community groups without prepared speeches. Aides wince at his pointed, off-the-cuff remarks, which they often don't know he has made until they appear in newspapers.

"It takes a tough executive to take a stand with these folks," Mr. Gary said Friday, referring to the county Board of Education. "They are mismanaging funds, and someone needs to tell the public. I'm the only one who can do it." Last week, Mr. Gary told the board he would allow the number of students to reach 120 percent of school capacity -- for planning purposes anyway -- before limiting residential development. The school board said that proposal pandered to builders.

Mr. Gary and the board are about $8.9 million apart on construction spending requests for next year.

The board, which accounts for 57 percent of the county's $733 million budget, would like to spend $46.5 million for capital projects. Mr. Gary has said $37.6 million is as high as he will go, and he has pointedly questioned the board's ability to stick to budgets. Last year, he said, the board was $9 million over budget on four school-construction projects.

"We're saying to the school board, and to developers, get your act together," he said.

Mr. Gary's critics contend that the fight is about ego, not economics.

"He thinks he's King John, ruling by fiat and executive order," Mr. Twombly said. "He's his own worst enemy."

Friday, Mr. Gary took his fight to the Anne Arundel General Assembly delegation, which endorsed his tough fiscal stance by unanimously approving a bill that would require the board to present a full accounting of its spending to Mr. Gary twice a year.

"Of course they did," Mr. Gary said after the vote. "We're absolutely right on this."

The bill, which now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee, would give Mr. Gary the power to audit the board, which he has accused of pumping up enrollment and cost projections to pry more money from the general fund.

"There have been cost overruns, but name one county building that hasn't gone over budget," said Del. Joan Cadden, a Brooklyn Park Democrat.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gary's administration has reached an impasse in contract negotiations with four of seven labor bargaining units representing county employees.

And the executive is battling a lawsuit challenging legislation he pushed through to roll back pension benefits for Anne Arundel's appointed and elected officials. In court documents, his administration has accused predecessors of a "flagrant breach of public trust" for dramatically increasing retirement benefits in the 1980s.

"This is all planned," said E. Hilton Wade, the county's personnel officer. "We went after their pensions to put our house in order. Then we go to the bargaining table with the unions."

Two weeks ago, Mr. Gary said county employees would have to forgo pay raises this year. A 1 percent raise amounts to $5.5 million, or 4.5 cents per $100 of assessed value on the property-tax rate.

He also has proposed legislation that would extend the workweek for the county's 750 nonunion employees to 40 hours from 35 and eliminate automatic annual step raises in favor of bonuses based on merit.

"Anyone who doesn't think they need to work a 40-hour week during these economic times is kidding themselves," Mr. Gary said.

Dennis P. Howell, president of the 700-member Fraternal Order of Police, told the council after Monday evening's protest march, "We are not the fat in this government which Mr. Gary would seek to trim and skim from the pot. If Mr. Gary wants to trim the fat, he need but look to his own staff."

While talks continue with three bargaining units, county officials concede privately that all labor contracts will be settled by the Republican-majority council before Mr. Gary submits his budget.

But with months to go before Mr. Gary formally introduces his budget, the argument over how to divide the money is certain to become more fervent.

And his word will be the last.

"I have no power," Mr. Gary said, "other than the power of the budget."

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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