Unions praise spending proposal for Balto. County

Smith's budget plan focuses on raises, schools

April 16, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

A year after unions blasted him for offering no raises in his first budget proposal, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. won praise from teachers, police officers and others yesterday for a spending plan focused on rewarding county employees.

The $1.3 billion budget proposal, which Smith unveiled yesterday morning, also pleased members of the fiscally conservative County Council, who said the executive maintained the proper focus on public safety, education and neighborhood renewal while holding the line on taxes and providing a needed boost for employees.

"It sounds very good and in keeping with our goals," said Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

After two years with no cost-of-living increases for county employees, union leaders weren't ecstatic about Smith's proposed raises: 4 percent on average for teachers, principals and administrators; $2,500 for police officers; $2,300 for firefighters; and 2.25 percent for other government employees.

But given the status of the economy, the projected $800 million budget shortfall the state government faces and the ill feelings some groups had about negotiations with the Smith administration last year, union leaders were generally satisfied.

"Last year was a frustrating year," said Cole B. Weston, president of the county's lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. "But this year, we did have better dialogue, more constructive and positive meetings, and that, I think, helps both sides."

Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, also said the union had a good dialogue with Smith this year. Smith's proposal would help keep salaries in Baltimore County competitive with other jurisdictions, but this year's raises are only a start, Bost said.

"This was very crucial, very key," Bost said. "We don't want to fall behind again."

Smith provided more money for education than the county's school board requested, but he made some cuts. Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's proposal included larger raises for support staff than Smith included.

However, the executive added more staff to help cut down on truancy. He also funded a $1.6 million program to help students in group homes make the transition to county schools.

The budget proposal, which the County Council will evaluate over the next several weeks, includes an increase in continuing expenses of about 3 percent over the current fiscal year. Allocations for one-time expenses also rose in this year's budget.

Smith asked for no rate increases in the piggyback income tax or property tax, though the budget anticipates increased revenues from those two sources because of economic growth and rising assessments. Rising assessments will push the average homeowner's bill from $1,544 in the current fiscal year to a projected $1,600 in 2004-2005.

However, the budget projects lower revenues from transfer taxes and recordation fees in anticipation of a cooling real estate market.

For the second time, Smith proposes to dip into the county's reserve funds to balance the books. Smith's budget calls for using about $24 million from the county's unallocated surplus account but does not touch a separate rainy day fund that helps guarantee the county's AAA bond ratings.

Last year, Smith balanced the budget with $18 million in reserve funds, but budget officials anticipate that only about $11.5 million of it will be used.

The County Council can cut from Smith's proposal but not add to it. Council members said yesterday that they agreed with Smith's decision to focus on raises for employees.

"It's not a lot of money. We realize that," Moxley said. "But at least it's something to say, `Thank you.'"

Despite the shared good feelings at the start of the county's annual budget process, the executive, council and labor groups sounded an ominous tone for the future because of the continued fiscal instability in the state government.

"It's clear we're bracing for Hurricane Annapolis, when they balance the budget deficit on local governments' backs," said Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "We're hunkering down."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.