Owens, council near deal

Big budget items set

wrangling focuses on some pet projects

May 28, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County Council and County Executive Janet S. Owens were poised to reach an accord late last night on a $730 million budget that will help fund an overhaul of public schools.

The tense final day of budget negotiations brought county government to a virtual standstill, as top officials and members of the County Council spent hours jockeying for an edge on how next year's budget money would be spent.

The toughest issues -- such as funding for schools and setting the tax rate -- were dealt with early. The school board, which received the vast majority of the money available under the county's strict spending limits, emerged from the process nearly unscathed. And the tax rate -- at $2.36 per $100 of assessed value, or $1,482 for a $60,000 property -- was unchanged from last year.

But Owens' staff battled with council members until late in the evening over a handful of key projects that they dearly hoped to deliver to their districts.

"The reality of limited dollars is slowly coming home to roost," Owens said. "We're an affluent county, so people have trouble understanding that we don't have the resources to fund needed projects. The budget that I sent down was as lean as it could be."

The complex process of reaching a budget agreement gives the council the power only to cut items, while the executive has the flexibility to add new ones in a supplemental document. The final product amounts to an elaborate trade.

In a final exchange being hammered out late last night, Owens was ready to add several spending items sought by council members who wanted to save popular local facilities. The final fiscal year 2000 package was set to include future funding for a new Crofton library, money for a community center in Pasadena, and $1 million to build a community college technology center in Arnold.

In return, Owens was expecting to win council support for her most cherished items.

Those included funds to preserve agricultural land, to create a county Web site and to increase staffing in her office.

A final agreement had not been approved by press time.

Among the most contentious of the items Owens was fighting for was a planned road extension near Annapolis, which would stream traffic along the outskirts of Gingerville.

Owens viewed the road as a key to easing traffic jams in the crowded Riva Road business corridor and to helping prepare the area for an influx of growth among the area's high-tech businesses.

But residents of the quiet Gingerville neighborhood feared their community would be shattered by the noise and pollution of creeping development in the already bustling Parole business district.

In an impassioned plea to forestall the road extension, Councilwoman Barbara D. Samoracjzyk, an Annapolis Democrat, urged the council to strike it from the budget.

Passage of the project "will lead to a downward spiral of our quality of life," she said. "This is the antithesis of smart growth."

Her pleas were overshadowed by concerns raised by the county's business community. Councilman Clifford R. Roop, a Severna Park Democrat, said the vote to approve the road extension would prove the council was pro-business.

"Relief is needed now," Roop said "Anyone who drives the Severna Park corridor knows the situation is atrocious.

Throughout the budget process, both council members and the county executive have sent clear signals that schools remain the county's top priority. Owens' budget includes $335.7 million for education -- enough to hire 67 new teachers and build several schools.

But at one point during yesterday's discussions, Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. broke from that message to signal his concern about runaway school spending.

Klosterman introduced amendments to eliminate funding for the construction of a Pasadena elementary school, a South County middle school and design money for a North County high school -- all measures which failed.

"I'll be honest, I didn't expect those to pass," Klosterman said after the vote. "But we needed to send a message that we can't keep building schools if we don't have money to pay teachers, hire administrators or buy supplies."

Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle said the need for those schools was too great to ignore.

"Where are those children going to go?" she asked.

Owens and the council members said they were weary from the process -- a grueling endeavor that all but one of them were experiencing for the first time.

"We're tired," Roop said. "This has been stressful, but we're going to be glad to have something that we can all be proud of."

Pub Date: 5/28/99

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