Executive proposes $10.5 million tax cut

Time to return funds, Ruppersberger says

April 17, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

In a budget designed to please everyone, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger proposed a $1.9 billion spending blueprint yesterday that would increase funding for schools and police while returning $10.5 million through a property tax cut.

Now in the seventh year of his administration, Ruppersberger said he has succeeded in helping the county fix aging roads and public buildings, and that the time has come to give taxpayers a break.

"I'm doing what I said I was going to do," Ruppersberger said at a briefing in the County Council chambers yesterday. "If you recall what I said during the last election, when I was criticized for not giving money back, I said schools and infrastructure come first. And we have all our programs in place to do that."

Ruppersberger returned to a philosophy he has used since 1994: preparing budgets that stay within formal spending guidelines, meaning the plans do not exceed what economic indicators show taxpayers can afford.

He credits his fiscal restraint - along with a no-frills agenda heavy on education, public safety and economic revitalization - with producing surpluses that make a tax cut possible while Baltimore and other jurisdictions are considering increases.

Ruppersberger wants to boost school spending by $33.6 million, add 25 police officers and buy $2.8 million worth of fire-rescue vehicles and equipment.

He also called on the County Council to trim the property tax rate for fiscal 2002, which will begin July 1, from $1.142 per $100 in assessed value to $1.12.

The tax bill for the owner of a house assessed at $75,000 would go down by $16.50 under Ruppersberger's proposal. The payment for a $200,000 house would drop $44, and the bill for a $300,000 home would go down $66.

Council members indicated their willingness yesterday to lower the tax rate through legislation that must be adopted by June 1.

"Whether it's politics or whether it's policy, I'm very pleased that the county executive has agreed with my position, that we should cut taxes and give money back to the people," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat.

Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, said, "I commend him for doing it now. I wish he had done it sooner."

The county's budget surpluses have exceeded $130 million for three consecutive years, and Ruppersberger had previously favored spending extra money on long-neglected road and school construction. But the county has tens of millions in unspent state construction funds.

"He can't legitimately say he's going to spend it on more schools," said former Republican Del. John J. Bishop, who ran against Ruppersberger in 1998 on a platform that included tax cuts. "He doesn't have the infrastructure to spend it fast enough. If you connect the dots, it says the people in Baltimore County are being overtaxed. In my coloring book, I got to that page sooner."

The executive changed his mind on taxes less than two years before the 2002 elections, in which he is expected to run for governor. Yesterday, Ruppersberger ducked the question of whether there is a political dividend to tax cuts. "I'm not sure," he said. "Is there?"

Friction between Ruppersberger and the Board of Education appears to have subsided. The board had ignored a request from the executive to cut $20 million from its proposed budget of $803 million. About $14 million was eliminated, including money to buy computers for all teachers. Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said he was pleased with the proposal, which increased education funding.

"He made sure that he did everything possible to support our initiatives and goals," Hairston said. "As you can tell, he is an education county executive. With a $33 million increase, he didn't hurt us."

The education plan includes funding for 60 new teachers, $400,000 for musical instruments and $250,000 for Venetian blinds.

During a 20-minute message read in crowded council chambers, Ruppersberger spoke as much about his accomplishments as he did about his plans.

Ruppersberger said 25 new police officers would help staff the growing Police Athletic League programs and allow for better supervision of reconfigured overnight shifts at two precincts.

The county's general fund - which pays for most government operations - would grow 0.81 percent, from $1.22 billion to $1.23 billion, a figure that includes 3 percent cost-of-living increases for general government workers and larger contractual raises for police and firefighters.

The $486 million capital budget includes $92 million for school construction, $64 million for streets and highways, and $70 million for expansion of the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson, a contentious project that the executive did not mention in his presentation.

The County Council, which may trim from the executive's budget but not add to it, has scheduled a public hearing for 7 p.m. May 1 at Loch Raven High School in Towson.

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