Budget vote a victory for Gary's views Council confirms county executive's' austere approach

'An excellent year'

Tax ceiling leaves little room to alter spending plan

June 02, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

A unanimous County Council, weary after a month of political wrangling, number crunching and ubiquitous lobbying, passed a $754 million operating budget Friday, representing a triumph for John G. Gary's no-frills view of municipal government.

The 2-inch-thick plan, which will chart county spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1, is political meat and potatoes. It includes hiring more police officers and more teachers, and devotes more money to filling potholes. More than 60 percent of county spending will go to public safety and public schools.

The budget also smacks Annapolis, although not as much as several angry council members would have liked. The council raised the city property tax rate by 8 cents per $100 of assessed value, while denying $158,000 in public-safety and transportation grants once earmarked for Annapolis.

Politically, the plan is the culmination of a rigorous six months for the Republican county executive, beginning with the stage-setting General Assembly session, giving him virtually everything he sought when he introduced the second budget of his term May 1.

"I couldn't be more delighted with the budget," Gary said in a statement. "We've had an excellent year. The administration and the council have come together and are now working from the same agenda."

The Republican-majority council has for some time been tuned politically to Gary's cost-conscious brand of government, which seems lifted straight from a civics text. "Education is the No. 1 issue. Road resurfacing is not sexy -- until you are in your car and hit a pothole," said Chairwoman Diane R. Evans, an Arnold Republican. "We are simply providing services citizens expect at the local level."

But the reason Gary's budget emerged virtually unscathed after 28 meetings in the last month is something else: Voters concentrated enormous fiscal power in the county executive by approving a tax ceiling in 1992 that prevents the budget from growing faster than the inflation rate.

Now, by the time austere spending plans reach the council for review, there is little to trim. The council introduced 139 amendments to Gary's budget this year and managed to shift roughly $1.6 million among county departments and spending categories.

It increased the roads fund by $500,000, added two school guidance counselors and two special education teachers, and gave more to the Advanced School Automation Project, among other small adjustments.

But that's not much in a three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar operation.

"We are impacting one-quarter of 1 percent of this budget," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican. "That's not very dramatic.

Councilman William C. Mulford II, an Annapolis Republican, said, "The tax cap has changed what county government can do. In the past, when you had a new initiative, it was easy -- you raised taxes to pay for it. The tax cap has changed that."

Less money may mean less political fun, but the council and its staff celebrated Friday afternoon at the conclusion of what Evans described as the "most exhausting budget review we've had."

George F. Bachman prepared to begin reading John Grisham's "The Runaway Jury." Klocko looked toward his family vacation at Walt Disney World and Bert L. Rice to a getaway in Montana. And Thomas W. Redmond Sr. went to county Budget Officer John R. Hammond's home for a beer.

"Two words," said Councilman James E. DeGrange, a Glen Burnie Democrat: "It's over."

DeGrange, however, questioned whether the council cut deeply enough into Gary's budget -- or showed enough independence from the administration. He introduced -- then withdrew -- numerous amendments that would have cut more than $1.5 million from the plan. County Auditor Teresa Sutherland provided the council with $4.2 million in potential cuts last week.

"We have to be more independent of this administration and take our auditor's lead," DeGrange said. "I think there was more there for us to go into."

The budget includes money for 168 new positions, mostly in public-safety agencies. It also includes a $904,000 job-training grant touted by Gary as a commitment to economic development, that allows Anne Arundel Community College to work with Northrop-Grumman Corp. to retrain workers.

Outside Annapolis, Anne Arundel residents' property taxes won't rise, but they will pay $36 more a year for curbside trash pickup.

The council did not set water and sewer rates for next year. They are expected to increase by $62 for the average county homeowner. Council members are to vote on the utility legislation tomorrow.

In all, county spending will be 2.8 percent higher than the current fiscal year's, the third-smallest increase in recent county history. Of the $754 million plan, $614.3 million comes from county taxpayers, the rest from state and federal grants.

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