County Council to vote on $1.7 billion budget

Adoption expected today

management at schools criticized

May 28, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Council is expected to adopt a $1.7 billion budget today that holds the tax rate steady and increases average water and sewer bills by about $50 a year, while sharply criticizing how the schools are operated.

The council, scheduled to adopt the budget this morning, said in a message accompanying the budget that school officials have "no unified approach" and "show no sense of urgency" in managing the $156 million scheduled to be spent next year on school repairs.

"During our budget deliberations, we questioned the [Education] Department about its management of capital projects. The responses we received were less than satisfactory," Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, wrote in a nine-page message accompanying the budget.

The council recommends that school officials speed up the process for replacing Gene Neff, the former physical facilities director, and consider hiring a building management firm to help oversee the building projects. A consultant's report says county school officials will have to spend $530 million to repair and replace aging schools over the next eight years.

The seven-member council also recommends that school officials keep better track of the system's 5,833 musical instruments, crack down on teacher absenteeism and re-evaluate school-based management policies that in some cases have meant money budgeted for textbooks was spent on substitute teachers.

School officials put a positive spin on the criticism yesterday, saying they have a good relationship with the council and agree with its concerns.

"We don't view it as the council being critical, but as a request that we work with them to find a resolution to these issues, and we intend to do that," said Charles Herndon, a spokesman for the county schools.

Dunbar Brooks, president of the county school board, said the board is just as eager as the council to find a replacement for Neff, who retired in March.

"They've made comments like that before, and from the school board's perspective, we certainly agree with a lot of what they've been saying," Brooks said.

School officials changed accounting procedures in December to avoid shifting funds to pay substitutes after finding that 90 out of 101 elementary schools exceeded their budgets for substitutes during the 1997-1998 school year.

The council budgeted $3.1 million to replace 3,818 of the schools' old musical instruments.

"This large capital outlay was apparently due to a lack of an established maintenance/replacement program," Kamenetz said in the message.

But Brooks said that the school board's original budget called for replacing the instruments over five years, and that County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger decided to step up the instrument purchases by funding them all in the coming year.

"It's a good idea, but it came from the executive because apparently the money is available," Brooks said.

The council's budget leaves virtually all of Ruppersberger's major programs and departments intact.

The members agreed to the executive's plan to spend $12 million to buy and demolish the 800-unit Village of Tall Trees apartment complex in Essex, hire 78 new teachers and install electronic cameras to catch red-light runners at 35 county intersections.

Police officers will receive 9 percent pay increases, firefighters 6 percent, teachers 4 percent and government employees 2 percent.

The budget will mean an 11 percent increase in sewer and water rates, raising the average household bill by about $48 a year. It keeps the property tax rate the same, at $2.855 per $100 of assessed value, but homeowners will pay an average of $23 more in property taxes because of graduated state assessment increases.

Pub Date: 5/28/99

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