Smith to propose $1.2 billion budget

Balto. County executive wants to raise salaries, hold the line on taxes

April 15, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. plans to unveil this morning a $1.2 billion budget with the first across-the-board raises in three years for teachers and other county employees, but no increases in income or property-tax rates.

The county's operating budget would grow about 3 percent over this year's, with much of the increase going toward cost-of-living adjustments that employee unions have been clamoring for in recent months, county officials said yesterday.

Teachers, principals and administrators would receive raises averaging 4 percent. Firefighters and police officers have approved raises of $2,300 and $2,500 per employee, respectively. Other county employees would get 2.25 percent raises, in addition to step and longevity increases.

Although the proposed rates for the county property tax and piggyback income tax would be unchanged, the proposal anticipates more revenue due to rising property assessments and incomes.

Smith, who is scheduled to present his second budget message to the County Council this morning, also will propose a $1.5 million program to help children in group homes make the transition to county schools. Included in his budget is money to refurbish parks and build senior and community centers in Arbutus, Inverness and Woodlawn, officials said.

The County Council, which can cut from Smith's budget but not add to it, will hold hearings on the proposal this month.

Although Smith's budget for fiscal 2005 avoids tax increases, layoffs or major program cuts, the executive warned county legislators at a breakfast meeting yesterday that fiscal instability in state government could mean financial ruin for local jurisdictions next year.

Fiscal pain

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has indicated that state aid could be cut and costs passed on to local governments to help close an $800 million budget deficit. If that happens, the cumulative losses to Baltimore County since Ehrlich took office would total about $120 million, Smith said.

"We're talking 10 percent of the budget, ladies and gentlemen. That is huge," Smith told legislators. "There are going to be jurisdictions who will be bankrupt."

The county "did OK" in pushing its agenda in Annapolis this year, Smith said, winning funding for school construction projects, help for Tropical Storm Isabel victims and changes to county liquor laws.

Stricter regulations on group homes and expanded prosecution powers for identity theft, both long-time priorities for the county, also passed this year.

Of the $30 million Smith requested for school construction and renovation, the county got $5 million, plus $1.5 million to refurbish aging schools.

The county secured another $10 million installment for the expansion of the detention center in Towson, plus $5 million in matching funds for renovations to outdoor athletic fields, construction of community centers, development of a trail network in Chase and other projects.

Other county funding priorities for the session died in committee.

County victories

The identity-theft bill, a Baltimore County priority since before Smith was elected, allows the prosecution of multiple identity crimes in the victim's jurisdiction, regardless of where the fraud took place.

The county won changes to liquor laws that will allow for more licenses at the site of the Hunt Valley Mall, which is being redeveloped, and for chain restaurants in Randallstown, both of which Smith said are key to economic revitalization efforts.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who attended Smith's briefing for county legislators, said Smith articulated a pragmatic middle ground in the conflicts between the governor and legislative leaders this year.

"He was a voice of reason in the room," he said. "No one, no executive in the state, no one, not even most legislators, understood the details of what happened in the General Assembly this year as well as your executive in Baltimore County."

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