Gary ready to unveil his budget plan No tax increase or dismissals are expected

Secret password

Unions may grouse, but school officials might be pleased

April 28, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

County Executive John G. Gary will unveil a drum-tight budget Wednesday that isn't expected to raise taxes, grant broad pay raises, dismiss county workers, or depart from conservative fiscal policies that have become his hallmark.

It likely won't make county employee unions happy. It might relieve, to some degree, tension between Mr. Gary and the Board of Education over money matters by sweetening the school construction budget by $8.1 million.

And, despite a likely increase in several undisclosed service fees, county taxpayer groups will have little to bark about in a roughly $800 million general-fund budget that is expected to grow just slightly more than last year's 2.5 percent increase.

"It's probably the first real-world budget in the last 20 years for Anne Arundel County," said Robert C. Schaeffer, president of Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association. "It will no doubt bring all the criers and whiners out of the woodwork. But happily, at long last, John Gary has looked at these people and told them to get a life."

Until Wednesday, the cornerstone of Mr. Gary's political agenda for the next year is being guarded like the grail in the Arundel Center.

One copy is being shepherded through the county's in-house print shop in preparation for its County Council presentation. The master draft, on computer disc, is protected by a password even Mr. Gary doesn't know. "He may want to make changes," joked John R. Hammond, the county's budget officer.

Added Lisa Ritter, Mr. Gary's spokeswoman: "We want to explain the budget. It has to be looked at as a whole, not by each of its components."

Mr. Gary, who spent last week on his annual golfing holiday in Myrtle Beach, S.C., will kick off a frenetic month of wrangling with his "budget message" to the council -- a required speech that is a cross between a fiscal "State of the County" address and a political vision statement. The council is expected to approve a budget by the end of May that will govern county finances through June 1997. Members can subtract, but not add to the spending proposal.

Last October, county department heads produced rough budget wish lists. Most were quashed in December when Mr. Gary told them to keep spending increases within 2 percent, a target unreachable by public-safety agencies. (A 2 percent increase in the county police force budget would have meant sweeping layoffs.)

Outright horse-trading

That process has shifted to outright horse-trading in recent weeks as department heads plead for more money. Known since his State House days as a fiscal maven, Mr. Gary has supervised much of the budget process himself, settling disputes between budget officials and department heads over final sums. "I've seen other county executives rely far more on their budget director," Ms. Ritter said.

To start his speech last year, Mr. Gary explained the rationale for a 3-penny increase in the property tax rate, which allowed the administration to push up revenues while remaining beneath the county's voter-approved tax cap. Approved in 1992, the law prevented property tax revenues from increasing more than 3.4 percent last year, the rate of inflation.

This year, no rate increase is expected. Inflation is running at 1.95 percent. "It gives us no flexibility," Mr. Hammond said.

The budget is made up of three components: operations, construction spending, and two fee-supported enterprise funds totaling $96 million that pay for trash, water and solid waste services.

The operating portion accounts for the bulk of county spending, specifically in personnel costs that comprise 75 percent of the budget. A highlight of this year's operating budget is expected to be money for 16 new police officers.

Clash over pay, benefits

For the last two months, the Gary administration and the county's seven labor bargaining units -- representing roughly 2,800 of the county's 3,500 employees -- have clashed over pay and benefits in next year's contract.

So far, five of seven labor groups have agreed in principle to new contracts, even as county officials are pushing a slate of pension-reform proposals that will extend the time it takes employees to reach retirement. Mr. Gary's budget is expected to include raises, by reclassifying certain positions, for some employees in those unions.

But unions representing police and fire employees are at an impasse with the county, and are scheduled to take their case to the County Council May 10. The proposed budget contains no pay adjustments for those roughly 1,000 workers.

"It's atrocious," said Dennis P. Howell, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 70, referring to Mr. Gary's budget.

'We disagree'

"We disagree with the county executive's decision that raises of any kind are unaffordable," he said. "Anne Arundel is one of the healthiest jurisdictions in the state right now."

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