Owens budget includes tax rise

Education remains priority

public safety pay raises included

May 02, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Improving schools remains priority No. 1 for County Executive Janet S. Owens, but the budget she presented yesterday also boosts funding for public safety, preservation of agricultural lands and a new library in Odenton.

For the second straight year, all county employees would get raises of varying amounts.

"My commitment to education hasn't changed, but it is important we address everybody, and we have to do that with limited dollars," she said after her half-hour budget address to the County Council and community leaders.

Her $1 billion-plus spending plan would push starting teacher salaries to about $32,000 a year and pay for school renovations. It also contains $3.8 million for a new fire station in Severn and a down payment on a $15 million police and fire communications system.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Anne Arundel edition incorrectly described terms of the three-year contract offer rejected by the county firefighters' union. The county offered a 13 percent pay raise.
The Sun regrets the error.

To help pay for the budget, Owens, a South County Democrat, proposes raising the county property tax rate for the first time since 1996. The levy would rise from $2.36 to $2.40 per $100 of assessed valuation -- or $32 more per year for the owner of a $200,000 house.

The 4-cent increase is the maximum allowed under a tax revenue limit adopted by voters in 1992.

"The proposed rate will still be the 12th-lowest rate of any county in Maryland and lower than every metropolitan county," Owens told a packed council chamber. "Our local income tax is the 20th-lowest in the state."

Rates for sewer, water and trash service would not change. Annapolis residents, who receive limited county services, would see their county rate rise by 4 cents as well, to $1.39 per hundred. City residents pay the city $1.68 per hundred, for a combined rate of $3.07.

The budget includes 5 percent raises for teachers (with 1 percent covered by the state), 7 percent for police officers, and 5 percent for police sergeants, detention officers and firefighters. All other county employees would get 2 percent. When last year's 3 percent raise for all county workers is factored in, Owens said the increases are "the largest in recent memory."

By committing $3 million more to agricultural preservation, Owens said the county could protect 2,200 acres from development.

Overall, the council warmly greeted the proposed budget, which has two components: $826 million for operations, and $233 million for capital spending or construction. "I think everybody won," said Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat.

Battles will be fought, however, on specific projects. Owens' last-minute decision to pull back on funding for a proposed Crofton library surprised council members and angered at least one.

"It's a devastating loss to this community," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican.

Owens said she made the change after the Planning Advisory Board gave priority to a larger regional library planned for Odenton, with construction scheduled for 2002. The recommendation caught her "by surprise," she said, adding she would try to find a way to speed up the Crofton library, now planned for construction in 2004.

The Board of Education did not get all it wanted but fared well again this year. The operating budget would rise by $28 million to $364 million; the board asked for an additional $51 million. The money would pay for 72 new teacher positions and eliminate the first three salary steps, raising starting pay from $28,000 to $32,000.

Owens included $58 million for school construction and renovation. Proposed projects include $8.3 million to renovate Cape St. Claire Elementary and $7.1 million for Glendale Elementary.

"Overall, we're certainly pleased," said Superintendent Carol S. Parham.

The council will hold budget hearings this month, but no final decisions are likely until late in the month. Two public hearings will be held: 7 p.m. Monday in council chambers in Annapolis and 7 p.m. May 10 at Glen Burnie High School.

Because the council cannot add to Owens' budget, it must approve a supplemental budget to spend more money. Several members say a supplemental budget will be necessary this year. For example, while Owens wants to give firefighters a 5 percent raise, their union is pushing for more money. The union rejected a three-year, 15 percent offer from Owens that included enhanced retirement benefits.

As part of the fact-finding process, the union and county may get a chance to present their cases to the council, which could then ask -- but not force -- Owens to increase the raise in a supplemental budget. "She's passed the tough decisions on to the council," said Klocko.

Firefighters have complained that the county could afford to offer a better contract thanks to a large budget surplus.

John R. Hammond, county financial officer, told the council yesterday that the administration expects the county to end this fiscal year nearly $40 million in the black -- after forecasting a surplus several months ago of less than $30 million. County Auditor Teresa Sutherland, who works for the County Council, said the surplus could be as high as $50 million.

Showdowns among council members are also possible. Owens included $3.8 million for the first phase of a $12 million expansion of North County High School, but some council members have expressed reservations about the project.

Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat whose district includes the school, said she will do whatever she can to keep the $3.8 million in the budget. She has urged residents to attend hearings.

"The fight's on," she said.

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