Budget plan draws protests Firefighters say Ruppersberger unfair for opposing raises

April 16, 1996|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN STAFF

Squeezing most departments for money, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said yesterday that his new budget will pour an additional $27 million into schools and policing, while holding the line on taxes.

But his $1.36 billion spending package for 1996-1997 drew pickets and protests -- showing how volatile budgeting has become for revenue-hungry counties.

More than 100 firefighters demonstrated outside the courthouse and packed the County Council meeting room, angry that the budget provides no general pay raises for firefighters or most other employees. Most police officers will, however, get a 4 percent raise.

After the county executive's speech, 16-year firefighter Nelson Weigandt, 35, from the Brooklandville station, confronted him.

"Over the last six years, I've had a 2.8 percent increase in pay," the firefighter said. "My mother says at least I have a job, but it's getting tough. I started a family during those six years."

Mr. Ruppersberger repeated his position that police are the TC lowest-paid officers in the Baltimore area and that their raises are all he can afford without increasing taxes. The county last raised its property tax in mid-1988; since then, the rate has dropped 4 cents, to $2.855 per $100 of assessed value.

Since imposing a 4 percent assessment cap in fiscal 1992, the county has lost a cumulative $58.7 million in revenues, budget officials said.

The budget proposal, which must be approved by the County Council, represents an overall increase of 1.7 percent, or $16 million. To get more money for schools and police, Mr. Ruppersberger said that he cut spending in other county departments.

One-third of the $27 million designated as additional spending for schools and police will be pumped into the capital budget for new schools, additions and renovations and for more infrastructure repairs, especially in older neighborhoods. The budget also provides for a $10.7 million surplus, in addition to the $29 million rainy day fund.

Schools are scheduled to get 235 new teachers to accommodate the 2,950 additional students expected in September, and to slightly reduce class sizes. Selected teachers also will benefit from $4.3 million in pay restructuring, and $1.2 million will go to begin wiring schools for computer uses.

For schools in poor neighborhoods that typically lack experienced teachers, Mr. Ruppersberger added $500,000 to match a state grant to hire 22 mentor teachers to assist inexperienced staff. Another $100,000 will pay for three community liaisons to get more black parents active in school programs.

In addition, Mr. Ruppersberger plans in November to seek voter approval for $66.7 million in borrowing for school buildings -- a 38 percent increase over the record-setting 1994 bond referendum.

"We're pleased," Deputy School Superintendent Robert B. Chapman said. "We're thrilled with the new teaching positions and the effort on the capital budget."

The school board separated its budget request into two tiers this year, and Mr. Ruppersberger funded the priority items but left most of the $25 million second tier unfunded.

Meanwhile, he proposed that the Police Department get 67 new recruits, to keep the total number of officers growing despite retirements. The department also would receive money for 56 new patrol cars, and a $1 million laptop computer system for 45 cars that will allow officers to send and receive crime information quickly.

But the most controversial item in the police budget is the 4 percent raise for virtually the entire department. The top three ranks will get 2.5 percent.

"I'm kind of surprised at [the firefighters'] reaction," Mr. Ruppersberger said, noting that he is doing just what he said he would do months ago. Firefighters, he contended, are among the highest paid in the area on an hourly basis.

But firefighters union President Kevin B. O'Connor hotly disputed that assessment. He said the administration made no effort to bargain with his unit and decided before labor talks began that firefighters would get no pay raises.

Mr. Ruppersberger did detail his plans for improving the Fire Department.

In addition to buying a new facility for the fire academy and fire-engine repair garage, Mr. Ruppersberger wants to replace eight medic units, and buy four new engines and one new ladder truck next year. He also plans to put a new medic unit to work in Pikesville, where a $3.6 million station is to be built.

Fire Department volunteers will get $150,000 more for firefighting clothing, $2.5 million more to help them buy equipment and build stations, and a small pension improvement.

Several council members indicated that minor cuts, if any, are all they can expect to make this year. The seven council members cannot add to the budget but can cut it; they must complete and adopt the budget by June 1.

Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, summed up the situation: "There's a difference between being fiscally conservative and fiscally responsible," he said.

Fiscal conservatives will make cuts because they are "politically astute"; a fiscally responsible person will ask whether those cuts are "advisable or not," he said.

Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, said he hopes to consolidate some administrative jobs and programs common to both Dundalk and Essex community colleges, and to eliminate a layer of police majors' jobs.

The annual public hearing on the budget is at 7 p.m. April 30 at Loch Raven High School, 1212 Cowpens Ave.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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