Budget plan aims to boost school repair

If OK'd by council, Balto. County spending would rise $74 million

Property tax rate kept

Sewer and water bills would increase

pay raises proposed

April 17, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Buoyed by a budget surplus, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger proposed a $1.7 billion budget yesterday for next year that would put a record $156 million into school repairs and pump millions into community centers and fire and police stations.

The budget calls for a $74 million spending increase, offers no property tax cut, and would increase sewer and water rates for most households by about $48 a year.

Most of the biggest spending increases would be in the schools, where Ruppersberger plans to spend $156 million to repair and renovate 49 elementary schools.

"I am certain that education is of greater concern today than it ever has been," Ruppersberger told the County Council yesterday in an upbeat 10-page speech.

In addition to school construction money, the budget calls for a $67 million increase for school operations to pay for 50 new elementary school teachers, 28 special education teachers and 10 new counselors for the elementary schools.

A total of $4.8 million would go to wire county middle and high schools for computers, and $3.2 million would go for new musical instruments next year. The school board had asked that the money for instruments be spread over five years.

The budget also calls for police officers to be assigned full time to work with students at Woodlawn, Kenwood, Randallstown, Overlea, Dundalk and Franklin high schools, said Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman. Officers already are assigned to Pikesville High School and Milford Mill Academy.

Anthony G. Marchione, school superintendent, said that Ruppersberger funded "pretty close" to the entire budget requested by the school board. If the budget is approved by the County Council next month, it would mean reduced class sizes, stepped-up efforts to teach reading and better instructional materials for the system's 161 schools, he said.

"I'm very pleased," Marchione said.

Ruppersberger declined to fund a $350,000 proposal by the superintendent that would have awarded $3,500 stipends to teachers who transferred to low-performing schools with high staff turnover. The county teachers union opposed the proposal.

Elise Armacost, a Ruppersberger spokeswoman, said Ruppersberger thought the idea was unfair because teachers already working at the schools would not qualify for the stipends.

Park to replace apartments

The budget also calls for spending $12 million on the plan to buy and demolish the decaying 800-unit Village of Tall Trees in Essex.

About 2,500 people live in the 105 buildings on 53 acres off Back River Neck Road. The buildings will be bought from 38 landlords and the site turned into a park over the next two to four years, according to state and county officials.

The project is part of an effort to revitalize aging communities in the county's eastern corridor, where the Riverdale and Savoy East apartment complexes are being torn down and where work on a $5 million streetscape is under way on Eastern Avenue.

State Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Democrat whose district includes Essex, said no one will be evicted; apartments will be sold off gradually and new apartments will be found for the tenants.

"This is going to mean a dramatic improvement for the lives of the people there," Collins said.

The budget calls for a 2 percent cost-of-living pay increase for general government, community college and library employees.

And it proposes dozens of projects to improve neighborhoods, including new community and recreation centers in Northpoint, Essex, Catonsville and Fullerton, and two new Police Athletic Centers in the Randallstown area.

Towson is to get a new police station. In the next several years Owings Mills is to get a new library, police station and fire station.

Assessments raise tax bills

The tax rate -- unchanged for five years -- would remain $2.855 per $100 of assessed value, but county homeowners would pay an average of $23 more in property taxes next year because of graduated state assessment increases.

Sewer and water rates would increase 11 percent, raising the average household bill $48 a year.

Michael Davis, a Ruppersberger spokesman, said the sewer and water rate increases -- the first in four years -- are needed to ensure that the county does not need to supplement sewer and water operations with tax money. He said such a subsidy would harm the county's bond rating and cost millions when the county raises bond money.

Much of the county's $73 million in increased revenue would come from higher income and real estate tax receipts. The county expects a surplus of $105 million when the current fiscal year ends June 30. The county projects an $80 million surplus by next year.

The spending plan won cautious praise from council members, who are to review it in hearings next month.

Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz -- who displayed beribboned scissors yesterday to symbolize the council's budget- cutting powers -- said that Ruppersberger's priorities appear to be consistent with the council's.

The Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat could not say yesterday whether he expects the council to make any budget cuts.

"If the priorities are right and there's fiscal responsibility, I think a lot of people will be satisfied with what's proposed," he said.

The council can trim the budget but not increase spending. It must adopt a balanced budget by June 1.

The council has scheduled a public hearing on the budget for 7 p.m. April 27 at Loch Raven High School.

Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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