Ruppersberger's hard choices Baltimore County: Executive's budget opts for sound investments over blanket goodwill.

April 19, 1996

SINCE EARLY this decade, county governments have had to revolutionize the way they do business. Budgeting used to be easy. Every year, new revenue poured in; the executive's task consisted basically of deciding how the money should be divvied up.

Today, revenues are flat and people don't want to pay more tax. The public doesn't want frills, but demand for basic services is greater than ever. Executives actually have to budget. They have a finite pool of money, but the special interests haven't disappeared. They have to make choices about whose pleas they can answer and still produce the affordable government voters expect.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III has made choices in his 1996-97 operating budget, which explains the angry protests coming from the county courthouse this week. Mr. Ruppersberger likely would have avoided that had he offered all public employees a meager 1 percent cost-of-living increase, the most the county could afford without raising taxes.

Instead, he is using that money to bring the salaries of police -- the lowest paid in the area -- some teachers and a few other underpaid workers in line with the rest of the region. Other employees -- vowing revenge on Mr. Ruppersberger in the next election -- are attracting headlines. But public workers' influence has waned with the electorate, and hence with elected representatives. People want executives and councils to allocate resources in a way that ensures the quality of the services they care most about. If attracting qualified police officers means raising their salaries at the expense of other employees, so be it. The executive's priorities mirror his constituency's.

So does the rest of the $1.36 billion budget. Though it includes only $16 million in new money, Mr. Ruppersberger has managed to plow $27 million into priority areas -- schools, public safety, preservation of older neighborhoods and job creation. This is being accomplished mainly by shrinking departments people care less about. By making choices. Those choices are making some people unhappy. But the loudest voices do not necessarily reflect the way most people feel. They certainly do not in this case. Mr. Ruppersberger's budget recognizes that -- as it should.

Pub Date: 4/19/96

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