Budgets for Annapolis, Anne Arundel are at odds County raises taxes

city reduces them, boosts salaries

June 09, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Two budgets, two visions, one county.

In the past 10 days, Anne Arundel and Annapolis politicians have done more than shout each other down in court. They have approved multimillion-dollar budgets for the coming year that, on the surface, look like mirror images.

Anne Arundel politicians raised property taxes -- for the Democratic city only -- and denied raises to county employees. Their Annapolis counterparts cut taxes and increased pay for city workers, something they trumpet in triumph.

"I always start with two priorities: to try to get a tax decrease and to give a pay raise," said Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, who said Depression-era memories of his father losing a job shoveling coal at the Navy Engineering Experiment Station still shape his politics on pay.

The budgets reveal the distinct political personalities, partisan priorities and challenges of the people running a $750 million county operation and a city apparatus a fraction that size.

The spending plans, which including construction projects account for more than $1 billion of local taxpayers' money over the next year, also provide vastly different interpretations of what Anne Arundel County voters said at the ballot box two years ago by electing the county's Republican leadership.

Their budgets are, essentially, two answers to one question: At what cost less government? That a Democratic City Council and Republican County Council respond differently is no surprise, but by doing so, they may ensure that the two local governments remain on diverging political paths.

"Historically, Democratic administrations pander to government employees, and in return, they are assured of their votes," said Robert C. Schaeffer, president of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association. "The county has finally realized that the votes of those employees are not essential to their elections. So they are treating them like employees, not voters. The question is, which method is best for the taxpayer."

Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a Ward 5 Democrat, believes the answer lies in the city's approach. "In 1994, the majority of the county's elected officials, who happened to be Republicans, felt they had a mandate to downsize government," he said. "That has harmed their relationship with the county's unions. And we will see over the long run whether that is beneficial to taxpayers."

A direct comparison of city and county budgets is imperfect because of scale and structure.

Anne Arundel spends more running its Fire Department than Annapolis spends on its entire operation, and the county has more police officers than the city has employees. As a result, the county would have to come up with $5.5 million for a 1 percent raise, 28 times more than city leaders would need to find.

Anne Arundel also operates under a tax ceiling approved by voters in 1992, which prevents the budget from growing faster than inflation. With the vast majority of the budget locked into state-required school spending, debt service and personnel costs, county leaders say a few million dollars is hard to find without the ability to raise taxes much.

As a result, County Executive John G. Gary introduced a $754 million budget that, for the third straight year, included no pay raises for 3,500 general county employees. That does not include public school teachers, librarians or community college staff members, who increased in number but did not receive higher salaries.

The proposal led to the most intense labor strife in years between county employees and the Republican administration.

Gary's budget, endorsed by a Republican-majority County Council, also included an increase of 8 cents per $100 of assessed value in the property tax rate for Annapolis residents to help pay for a $62 million County Courthouse and a $27.9 million jail in Glen Burnie. The tax increase resulted from a reduction in the tax credit, or differential, the city receives for providing certain public services. City leaders challenged the matter in Circuit Court, and a decision is due Wednesday.

That increase, combined with the city's reduction, will raise the city's overall tax rate from $3.23 per $100 of assessed value to $3.27, adding roughly $31 to the average Annapolis property tax bill. That rate is 89 cents higher than the one paid by residents outside the city.

Since 1991, the county's budget has grown 22 percent while city spending has risen 17 percent. But Annapolis benefits from much of that county budget growth

In the past six years, the county's general payroll (excluding teachers, community college staff members and librarians) has been cut by 340 jobs while overall county employment has jumped from 11,821 to 11,994 positions. Of the increase, the Board of Education added 492 jobs, serving county and Annapolis residents. The county will add more than 100 positions in the next two years to staff the new courthouse and jail.

The Democratic-majority City Council endorsed a $40.3 million budget for the coming year that cuts Annapolis property taxes by 4 cents per $100 of assessed value and grants city employees a 3.8 percent pay increase. The tax reduction was financed in part by raising household trash-collection fees to $42, $12 more than was proposed initially.

The pay raise for 570 city employees marks the end of a two-year effort to make Annapolis salaries comparable to those paid by VTC surrounding jurisdictions. The raise will cost the city $740,000, equal to about 8 cents of the Annapolis property tax rate.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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