Budgeting for 2000: Cautious exuberance?

Local governments: Gains from a hot economy funneled mostly to education and fighting crime.

June 07, 1999

IT'S THE ECONOMY, stupid -- the political motto Bill Clinton made famous -- isn't as relevant at the local level. Mayors and county executives have little power to affect an economy, so their mantra might be, "It's schools and crime, stupid." Judging from the recent season of building budgets, it's a warning they're heeding.

About 80 percent of new revenue went to education and public safety, according to an informal poll of the state's 24 jurisdictions by the Maryland Association of Counties.

Although county executives still chafe at their limited power to control money for education, animosity was less evident this spring between county governments and school boards. County executives elected last fall seemed to understand that they pick fights over money with school systems at their peril, since a few of the incumbents they replaced were bruised that very way.

The lessons of the last recession also haven't been forgotten, despite seven years of economic growth. The current executives, some of whom suffered through massive cuts as council members or county employees in the early '90s, were hesitant to add programs with long-term obligations.

City: Good times?

Unlike thriving suburban municipalities Baltimore is dealing with a contracting economy. Revenues are flat or declining, while the cost of providing services keeps escalating. If this is the situation in a good economy, what's to come when adversity truly hits?

The City Council is still debating Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's $1.5 billion spending proposal. Its biggest worry seems to be how to restore 16 percent in cuts to recreation and parks that would wipe out nearly one-third of the department's 345 employees. Meanwhile, a labor contract covering 10,000 of the city's 16,243 employees is about to expire with little money available for an increase.

Three S's in Towson

Flush with revenue, the Baltimore County Council approved a $1.7 billion operating budget nearly identical to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's proposal. There was broad agreement that additional spending should go to the three S's: schools, (public) safety and street work.

The county increased school spending by $61 million, and plans a $156-million dent in a half-billion dollars' worth of needed school repairs. It approved significant pay raises for police. And money for community revitalization -- from repairing alleys, bridges and roads to demolishing decrepit apartment complexes -- will pay dividends by preserving older neighborhoods.

Anne Arundel: Ed & Ag

Education spending will rise substantially, as voters sought when they elected Janet S. Owens county executive. Schools will get a record $336 million of the $730 million operating budget, up $35 million, and $40 million to repair and upgrade buildings.

The council also prudently cut the size of an unusual land acquisition fund, under which the executive has great discretion to purchase property. John G. Gary created a stir by using the fund just before he left the office of county executive to hastily buy property linked to campaign contributors. Ms. Owens and council members condemned the arrangement, which is valuable in emergencies but also invites misuse. The fund, at $2.6 million last year, contains $330,000 now.

Bad blood in Carroll

Upset by repeated school construction mistakes and cost overruns, the Carroll County commissioners are withholding $1 million in operating funds from the Board of Education. The board must launch an unprecedented systemwide performance audit before the money is restored. The commissioners also trimmed nearly $2 million from the school system request to $92 million for fiscal 2000, $5 million more than this year.

The cuts are not expected to reduce the number of teachers, but they send a strong warning to the school board that the commissioners control the purse strings and will demand accountability.

Double-A praise in Harford

Many seemed satisfied with the outcome of James M. Harkins' first budget as Harford County executive. Teachers received raises ranging from 2.7 to 14 percent, quieting charges that county educators were underappreciated. Key projects, including a Bel Air senior-youth recreation center and a library in the Abingdon growth corridor, received funding. And 10 deputies will be added to the sheriff's office -- Mr. Harkins' employer before he won countywide office.

But the positive review that most cheered the executive was the county's upgraded bond rating by Standard & Poor's from minus-AA to AA after it reviewed the county's budget and long-range plans. The county's diversifying employment base offsets anxiety about the Army's plan to cut 600 jobs at Aberdeen Proving Ground (which once employed half of all Harford countians).

Rare tax increase in Howard

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