Gary planning schools outlay Timing is suspicious, campaign foe says of $5.8 million effort

October 27, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

With education funding taking shape as the hottest issue in the Anne Arundel County executive race, incumbent John G. Gary said yesterday that he plans to use $5.8 million of surplus county money to hire teachers, renovate schools and buy computers.

His opponent in the Nov. 3 election, Democrat Janet S. Owens, said she found the timing of Gary's generosity suspicious. She questioned why he didn't give the schools more money in May, when the school board was begging for it to prevent painful cuts.

At the time, the county auditor said Gary could afford to spend an additional $10 million, and the Board of Education said it needed $9 million more to offset the skyrocketing cost of special education and health insurance.

Gary's refusal to give the board a larger budget increase led to the board's decision to eliminate a popular cultural enrichment program for middle school students, delay the purchase of computers and ration photocopies.

"Gary knew he had another $10 million. The Board of Education said they needed $9 million. And yet he made them go through cuts? That's just an incredible lapse in public policy," said Owens' campaign manager, David Sheehan.

At a news conference yesterday, Gary said the volatility of the stock markets, which affect state and county income tax collections, made him doubt the county auditor's prediction of a $10 million surplus.

This month, when county financial officers finished a study of tax-collection data from the year that ended June 30, they found that the surplus was $22.4 million, more than double the earlier projection, Gary said.

"Unless the county auditor has a crystal ball, we had no way of knowing if the stock market would hold. Had it dropped, these revenues would not have been there," Gary said. "These revenues are unpredictable."

Gary said he plans to introduce legislation in January to give $5.8 million to the schools. That would allow the hiring of 17 teachers hTC and the possible lifting of photocopy rationing, which has upset teachers.

$10 million held back

In addition, Gary said, he plans to hold back $10 million for unspecified renovation and construction in the fiscal year that began July 1.

Gary said he will ask the County Council to approve the spending this year of an additional $1.5 million to help buy a wilderness preserve on the Shady Side peninsula; $1.1 million for scholarships and technology at Anne Arundel Community College; almost $600,000 to improve the county's fire departments; and $500,000 to improve the county's libraries.

Superintendent Carol S. Parham said school officials are "very grateful" for the extra money but that it will not compensate for the cuts the schools suffered in the spring, including the middle school gifted and talented program.

"I don't know whether to laugh or cry," said Susie Jablinske, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. "We could have avoided five months of belt-tightening and budget cutting. I think this is John Gary's last-minute attempt to buy votes."

Routine announcement

Gary denied that his announcement had anything to do with politics, saying the county announces budget surpluses every October.

The $22.4 million surplus revealed yesterday is slightly more than half of the $43.4 million in extra cash the county has in bank accounts and not budgeted for specific use.

The county keeps a $21 million rainy day fund, said county Financial Officer John Hammond.

Concerned about the recession in the early 1990s, County Executive Robert R. Neall persuaded the County Council to pass a law in 1992 requiring the county to maintain that cushion against economic downturns.

Financial crisis

The rainy day law says the cushion must remain no more than 3 percent of the county budget and that the County Council should not touch it except in case of financial crisis.

Gary said yesterday that he did not feel the cushion was big enough to gamble on giving the Board of Education the additional $9 million it requested in May. Cutting into the cushion might have hurt the county's excellent bond rating, Gary said.

Asked whether the county has been too conservative this year given the needs of the Board of Education, Hammond said, "Hindsight is always 20/20. I don't think the county executive wants to be in a position of dipping into the rainy day fund."

Pub Date: 10/27/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.