Smith holds the line on taxes, services

Proposal calls for no cost-of-living raises, uses reserve to balance budget

April 17, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s first budget proposal maintains county services without raising taxes, but, owing to tough economic times and cuts in state aid, it taps the county's reserve fund, gives no cost-of-living increases to employees and offers few new programs.

In his budget message to the County Council yesterday, Smith proposed increasing the county's general fund budget by 2.3 percent to $1,239,467,926, well below the county's anticipated 4.32 percent growth in personal income for the next fiscal year.

While the proposal would keep the property tax rate at $1.115 per $100 of assessed value, rising assessments will push the average homeowner's bill from $1,465 in the current fiscal year to $1,538 in 2003-2004.

"I'm very disappointed I couldn't consider any raises for county employees, but there just isn't the money," Smith said. "As far as priorities, I said education, public safety and renaissancing older communities, and that's where I put the emphasis."

The area of the budget that would expand the most is education. Smith proposed money for more than 300 new positions in the public schools, including special-education teachers, instructors for the soon-to-open New Town High School and teachers to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in lower grades. Smith also included money to boost entry-level teacher salaries.

Overall, the school system fared well in Smith's budget proposal, said Superintendent Joe A. Hairston. "Everything in my initial budget request we were able to get," he said.

Many of the projects and programs Smith highlighted in other areas are more a continuation of previous efforts.

In public safety, Smith included funds for a new police station in Pikesville and new police and fire stations in Owings Mills-Reisterstown, which were already on the books. Smith included $8 million for land preservation and Rural Legacy projects, more than in last year's budget, but $3.75 million less than the Planning Board recommended.

In his message, Smith highlighted $350,000 in design money for a public library/community college building at the new town center at the Owings Mills Metro Center, though the money comes from the state and the project has been planned for years. He also included $2 million for community revitalization efforts. Last year, the county appropriated $3.5 million for such projects in Dundalk.

"It's an extremely lean budget and consistent with where we have been in the past, and I think that's what the council wants to see," said Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "The budget continues many of the policies and priorities of the council over the last eight years."

Following through on a campaign pledge, Smith established a volunteer center in the county Department of Aging. He also included funding for two new CountyRide buses for elderly residents and for a juvenile drug court.

"None of these at this point are expensive items, but they're all going to have tremendous impact for Baltimore County," Smith said. "I had to look at things that aren't expensive because I just don't have the money."

Although county revenues will remain essentially flat in the next fiscal year, the county would be able to weather more than $19 million in cuts in state aid, in part by using about $18 million of its undesignated surplus fund, according to Smith's budget.

Smith expressed concern yesterday that more cuts from the state could be on the way. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has threatened to veto $135 million in tax increases passed by the General Assembly and instead cut spending.

Smith's capital budget, which he also presented last night, includes funding for a computer system to track student performance and attendance and to store emergency contact information. It also contains money for two new schools: $13 million for Windsor Middle and $7 million for Woodholme Elementary.

The county executive's budget did not include a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment that the school board requested for the system's 17,000 employees. County employees will still get step and longevity increases. A 1 percent cost-of-living increase for all county employees would cost $10.6 million.

"I guess it's about the best we can get, but I'm sorry we didn't get the COLAs for employees," said school board President Donald L. Arnold.

Labor leaders generally said they were satisfied with the budget, though their members did not get cost-of-living increases again.

"We were basically told last year ... not to look for much for a couple of years to come," said Norman Anderson, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local that covers Baltimore County workers. "In all honesty, I expect one more year of bad times."

But Cole B. Weston, president of the Baltimore County lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said he thinks Smith could have tried harder to make money available for a cost-of-living increase for employees, particularly given the efforts that labor organizations have made to work with the county on limiting health care costs.

"The people I represent work very hard 24-7," Weston said. "At some point, it has to be considered a partnership, and this early in [Smith's] term, there has not been an acknowledgement of some sort of partnership, and that concerns me."

Sun staff writer Jonathan D. Rockoff contributed to this article.

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