Education funding at issue as race for executive heats up Gary says boost would require tax increase

October 22, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary accused his opponent this week of being evasive with voters by refusing to say what services she would cut to meet her promises of increasing funding for education without raising taxes.

Democrat Janet S. Owens yesterday said that she would start by looking at possible cuts in what she describes as Gary's bloated administration.

She said those trims might include slashing the county executive's meal and travel budgets, reducing the number of county cars driven by top county administrators, a hiring freeze for bureaucrats and eliminating jobs in the community services department, which is run by Gary's wife, Ruthann.

"For example, John Gary has huge meal bills," Owens said. "I can't imagine anyone can eat that much."

County records show that even if Owens eliminated the county executive's Cabinet, the community services office and all of their benefits, it would make up less than a third of the $20 million deficit that Gary claims Owens would face.

Gary said his opponent has boxed herself in by suggesting that she would raise the percentage of money the county spends on education from 43 percent to 47 percent without removing the ceiling on property taxes imposed by county law.

"There is no way you can do can do that without raising taxes. Even if she were to raise the piggyback [county income tax] the maximum amount allowed by law, she would still have to cut $20 million in programs," Gary said.

He said Owens has been "dancing around the issue" by refusing to publicly state what services she would cut to make up that gap.

"Is she going to cut $20 million in programs for seniors and law enforcement? She's got to cut something to make up that money," Gary said. "I don't think she has the slightest idea how she would get out of this problem."

Gary has made taxes a centerpiece of his campaign, last week launching television ads that claimed Owens is backed by liberal special interest groups who want to eliminate the county's restrictions on property taxes.

Owens has assailed the ads as misleading, saying Gary's latest attack is based on a lie. She said she never pledged to raise education spending to 47 percent of the budget, although she confirmed that she plans to increase education spending without raising taxes.

"It's horrible. I've never said I would do that [raise education spending to 47 percent]. My intention is to try to put as much money as possible into our schools. But we need to be prudent and cautious," Owens said.

Owens said that, if elected, she plans to assemble a task force that would look for cuts and ways to save money throughout county government in order to increase schools funding.

She said she doesn't know what cuts her task force would recommend but that she would rule out reductions in the county's police and fire departments.

Owens' campaign literature has discussed percentages of the county budget going to education. The material reviewed by The Sun uses the figure 47 percent for education, but it does not make the promise that Gary says it does.

The "Janet Owens for County Executive 1998 Position on Education," which was distributed to the news media before the Sept. 15 primary, assails Gary for allowing the percentage spent on education to slip over the past four years.

"We can reverse the damage," the document says. "Spending on education has plummeted from 47 percent to 43 percent of the county budget, representing a los of many millions of dollars that should have gone to education."

It says later, "I will take steps necessary to restore proper funding levels to the board of education."

Michael Owen, spokesman for Gary's campaign, said the amount of money the county spends on education has grown throughout Gary's term and rose $26 million last year.

The percentage slipped, he said, because the overall size of the county budget grew more rapidly, in part because of a more than $50 million project to build a county courthouse and a $25 million jail.

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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