Owens puts schools first in budget

Bulk of executive's $730 million proposal to go to education

`Budget fulfills my promise'

Included are raise for county workers, no property tax jump

May 04, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens put real dollars behind months of campaign promises yesterday by presenting a $730 million budget that includes the largest increase in county education spending in at least a decade without an increase in the property tax rate.

The proposed budget raises school spending by $29.3 million and pledges $40 million for long overdue repairs to old school buildings. The increases would enable the county to hire 67 teachers, reduce the average size of first-grade classes from 25 pupils to 20 and increase teacher pay by 3 percent.

"Our failure to properly invest in quality public education for our children and confront the deterioration of our schools has been nothing less than a blot on our reputation," Owens said yesterday as she presented the budget to the County Council.

"This budget fulfills my promise to the voters of this county to provide the building blocks we need to meet the future in Anne Arundel County."

Owens' spending plan offers the clearest picture yet of how county government will change under her leadership. She took office in December after unseating incumbent John G. Gary in a bruising campaign that focused on the county's education spending.

Few were surprised that Owens chose to direct the bulk of Anne Arundel's scarce new revenues to its schools. But in her budget message, she told council members she is intent on maintaining other key services, too.

Her proposal keeps the county property tax rate at $2.36 per $100 of assessed value and $1.35 for homeowners in Annapolis, who receive some county services. The tax bill for the average county home -- assessed at $60,000 -- would be $1,482. Water, sewer and trash fees would not change.

The budget would give a 3 percent pay raise to all county employees and also includes nominal increases for police and fire services, sets aside $3 mil- lion for the preservation of agricultural land, and adds money to outfit the county with new computers and a Web page.

Finding the funds

Owens said she intends to raise $31 million in new revenues to pay for these additions, in part by shrinking the county's bureaucracy.

Under her plan, 60 midlevel positions would be eliminated through attrition and early retirement incentives. The buyout would not apply to public safety officers or teachers, but likely would affect such departments as public works, central services and personnel.

Owens also plans to tap into a recent parking tax increase, and raise $1.5 million next year with a new program that would bill insurance carriers $300 each time someone is taken to the hospital in a county ambulance.

As she concluded her presentation yesterday, a packed council chamber greeted the rookie county executive with a standing ovation. In the front row, members of the Board of Education -- who had for years scrapped with Gary over every penny -- could hardly contain their elation.

Boon for education

"I'm ecstatic," said Michael McNelly, vice president of the county school board.

"What a difference an election makes," said Thomas E. Florestano, another board member.

Some critics, however, worried about the county giving so much money to a school board that is not strictly bound by requirements for how to spend it.

"We're giving them $40 million and we don't know what they're going to do with it," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, one of two Republicans on the council. "This is very positive for education, but it avoids the question of accountability."

County officials said the school board would be motivated to designate the $40 million for building maintenance because they could qualify for an additional $20 million in state matching money.

With a proposed budget of nearly $336 million, school officials said they would be prepared to tackle problems of crowding, deteriorating facilities and lagging technology needs.

"What you heard today was something very positive for public education," said Carol S. Parham, county schools superintendent. "Mrs. Owens lived up to her pledge to voters."

Budgetary also-rans

The most evident losers appeared to be those who had projects pending in the capital budget.

Plans for a new library in Crofton, which had reached the design phase, were scrapped and a library planned for Odenton also was cut, as were several road improvement plans, proposed new firehouses and county dredging projects.

"I would have liked to do more for day care, for senior citizens, and for moderate-income housing," Owens said after her speech. "But there was too much to do. It wasn't an easy process."

County officials appeared ready to accept that. Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said he was pleased to see his budget go up, even if it wasn't as high as he had sought.

"Education is obviously her priority," he said. "In a limited budget, I think we did well."

Scrutiny to come

Over the next several weeks, Owens' budget will undergo scrutiny by the council in meetings with department heads. Klocko said he expects most of the attention to focus on the bounty for schools.

"Any time you have such a tremendous allocation, you have to be careful," he said.

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