Council quick to approve budget

Libraries, pay raises included in spending plan for $1 billion

May 26, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

With relative ease and speed, the Anne Arundel County Council approved yesterday a $1 billion budget that will pay for two new libraries, raises for many public employees and a host of other construction projects.

The county's general fund budget for fiscal year 2000-2001 will rise to $827 million, about 7 percent higher than this year's spending plan. The fiscal year starts July 1.

The council approved a construction budget of about $230 million.

In a separate vote, the council voted 5-2 to raise the property tax rate 4 cents to $2.40 per $100 of assessed property value -- the largest increase allowed under the county's property revenue cap.

"The budget is a good budget," Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. said after the mid-afternoon vote. "Every district in the county benefited from major projects."

Not everyone agreed. In casting the lone dissenting vote on the budget, Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk lashed out at County Executive Janet S. Owens, with whom she has frequently clashed.

"People have not been treated fairly, promises have not been kept and the process lacks integrity," the Annapolis Democrat said from the dais in the council chamber. "It has resulted in turning a budget which should be a planning document into a political tool."

She questioned the administration's fiscal wisdom -- and accused Owens of breaking her word by not funding $900,000 for sound barriers along U.S. 50 near Annapolis.

"It sounded sad," Owens said later. "I think the budget is about people and process. It is a win for the county."

The budget changed little since Owens introduced it May 1, with one notable exception: Owens decided to start building a new 25,000-square-foot library in Crofton next fiscal year instead of in 2004. It could open in late 2002, her spokesman said.

The county also will move forward on a new, larger regional library in nearby Odenton.

Owens said she decided 1 1/2 weeks ago to accelerate the Crofton library, after learning more about the technology and hearing from elected officials such as state Sen. Robert R. Neall, a Democrat who represents Crofton.

She found $5.9 million for it mainly by trimming throughout the budget.

The move delighted Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican and major library booster. But even he echoed some of Samorajczyk's concerns, saying that the council is being "marginalized" in the budget process.

That prompted Councilman Bill D. Burlison, an Odenton Democrat and stalwart Owens supporter, to observe: "She's taken a lot of hits today. Some of those hits come from members after they got what they wanted."

The budget is replete with new projects: $3.8 million for a new fire station in Severn, $15 million for a police radio system to eliminate "dead zones," $900,000 for a park expansion near Annapolis and more than $30 million in school renovations and additions.

The budget also has $18.5 million to design and build the Center for Applied Learning and Technology at Anne Arundel Community College, $3 million to preserve 2,000 acres of agricultural land and $9 million to repair roads.

Owens devoted millions more to sewing up new labor contracts. Police officers will get a 7 percent raise next year, although it will actually amount to 15 percent because of increases in other benefits. Teachers and firefighters will see their paychecks rise by 5 percent, with other employees receiving more modest increases.

The county's blue-collar workers must live with 2 percent. They had asked for 4.6 percent, and the council had recommended 3 percent. But Owens funded just 2 percent because she said she believes their wages are competitive.

"It's devastating to our membership," said union president Scott Harmon. He noted the union's strong support of Owens during the 1998 campaign and said, "Look what we got -- 2 percent."

In her speech, Samorajczyk said Owens signaled Tuesday she would agree to 3 percent -- and held up her decision as an example that she was not acting fairly. But Owens said she never made such a commitment.

As for the sound barriers -- which Owens indicated her support for in a memo last year -- Owens pointed out that Samorajczyk never asked her directly for the funding.

Samorajczyk also questioned the soundness of some administration budget estimates, noting the new police radio system. Although the cost has been estimated as high as $28 million, Owens set aside $15 million.

But Klosterman, a Millersville Democrat, defended Owens. He predicted that a satisfactory radio system "without the bells and whistles" could be purchased for $15 million.

The property tax increase -- the first since 1996 -- generated little controversy on the council or among the public, according to county officials.

Tax assessments are based on 40 percent of a property's value. For the owner of a house worth $200,000, a 4-cent increase will add $32 to the tax bill mailed in July. For the county, the increase will generate about $5.6 million. Even with the increase, Owens said, Anne Arundel's property tax rate will be among the lowest in the area.

The new tax rate passed over the objections of Samorajczyk and Severna Park Republican Cathleen M. Vitale. "I continue to believe we've got a responsibility to evaluate the growth of the budget in a more conservative way," Vitale said.

Although this year's final budget session had its share of drama, it was over by 3: 30 p.m. Last year, negotiations went until 2 a.m. and were hampered by the absence of a typist to prepare amendments.

"This is a breeze," said Klosterman.

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