Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens unveiled yesterday an $883 million spending plan for next year that includes more money for schools and the police, along with a small tax cut.
Delivering her budget message to a packed crowd at the Arundel Center yesterday morning, Owens offered few surprises. She recited a familiar refrain on the importance of investing in education, public safety and land preservation, even in lean times.
Though County Council members had time for only a cursory review of Owens' proposal while she spoke, several said they doubted the debates would be as heated as in past years because there's so little money to go around. They said they took into account the fiscal constraints when recommending spending within their districts.
"All of us were very conservative with our requests," said Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat. "We just said, `Look, we'll keep what's in the pipeline and not ask for anything more.'"
The County Council will vote on Owens' proposed operating budget May 23 after a series of hearings on the spending plans for county departments.
The county executive's proposed capital budget of $194.7 million combined with the general fund budget of $883 million bring the proposed spending package to $1.07 billion.
Owens' proposed operating budget gives the county schools $22 million more than what they received last year, bringing the school system's proposed budget to $404.8 million. Much of that is earmarked for hiring 80 new teachers, including 40 in middle schools and 22 in the special education field.
Owens called the new teacher funding part of her administration's "laser-like" focus on putting more dollars in the classroom. She also proposed granting the county school board's request for money to begin or complete construction of buildings at Mayo, Marley and Seven Oaks, a new gymnasium at Crofton Elementary and a new building at Marley Middle School.
She also recommended the formation of a panel to study how to pare down school construction costs.
"Of course we would like to do more for all the parents, children and teachers who have waited their turn," Owens told the crowd. "But every year, the cost of building a new school - be it elementary, middle or high school - continues to climb out of control."
Councilman Dan E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat, praised Owens' proposal for a panel, saying the county must find a way to reduce the costs of building an elementary school, which hovers around $20 million.
"I don't know how we can afford that," he said. "We need to take a hard look at the costs."
Klosterman and his colleague Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, also supported Owens' proposed funding for more teachers and classrooms.
"I was happy to see the focus where it's going to do the most good," Vitale said.
Owens said she reluctantly proposed cutting property taxes from 96 cents to 95 cents per $100 of assessed value. Because of property values' rapid increase countywide, the tax revenue increases were threatening to exceed those allowed under a voter-approved tax limit.
For an owner of a home valued at $150,000, the change in the tax rate would mean a savings of $15.
The property tax rate was last cut four years ago by Owens' predecessor, Republican John G. Gary.
Owens proposed $7 million more than last year's budget for police to hire new communication workers, renovate the department's headquarters and purchase new equipment. The increase brings the department's proposed budget to $75.4 million. Her proposed budget for firefighters is $65.7 million, $6 million more than last year.
Anne Arundel County Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said he was "very happy" about Owens' proposal. The money, he said, will help the department buy a new helicopter and update the two it has, which are each more than 30 years old.
Owens said she was glad to have been able to propose an increase in schools spending but added that she would have liked to have done more.
"I wanted to give more funding for teachers and starting salaries," she said. "I really wanted to do that, but I just couldn't. I didn't have the resources."
Highlights from Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens' proposed budget:
Reducing the real property tax rate from 96 cents per $100 of assessed value to 95 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Putting 80 new teachers in the county schools, including 40 in middle schools and 22 in special education positions, part of a $22 million increase in schools funding.
Adding $7 million more than last year's funding for police equipment and personnel.
Adding $6 million more than last year's funding for the fire department, part of which will fund a study of the EMS delivery system.
Providing $11 million for road improvements, including resurfacing and masonry projects, an increase of $1 million from the previous year.
Consolidating the county's technology resources into an office of information technology.
Adding $771,900 in library spending more than last year, bringing the budget to $11.4 million.
Spending $1.4 million on Anne Arundel Community College projects, including construction of the satellite campus at Arundel Mills.