Owens seeks millions more for education

Arundel budget proposal includes no tax increase

May 04, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County would spend millions more on schools and emergency services without imposing any tax increase on its citizens under the $969 million operating budget proposed yesterday by County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Owens said revenue from the county's booming real estate market, combined with better-than-expected state funding, allowed her to forestall an income tax increase. But she warned that county services and infrastructure will deteriorate in the next few years if residents and County Council members continue to resist higher taxes.

"You cannot stand for the best if you only recite the mantra of `no more taxes, no more fees,'" Owens said in her budget presentation.

Owens said after her speech that she would have proposed an income tax increase if she had thought the County Council would approve it. She termed it ironic that the county's formula for property taxes - which includes a ceiling on total revenue - would cause rates to go down, from 95.5 cents to 94.1 cents per $100 of assessed value, despite tight fiscal times.

Members of the council's Republican majority said they were happy that Owens did not propose higher taxes, a move that would have led to a contentious budget season. The council has until the end of the month to approve a budget.

"I think the citizens are pretty adamant that they don't want tax increases," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. of Pasadena.

Council members agreed that Owens' warnings about the future were warranted.

"We're dodging the bullet one year at a time," said Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Republican from Crofton.

But Reilly and others said they don't see higher taxes as the best way to steady the county budget.

Statewide, local jurisdictions have grappled with budget uncertainties and come up with radically different responses.

Baltimore County officials credit a combination of real estate tax revenue, more state aid than expected and careful budgeting with allowing them to avoid a tax rate increase.

In Baltimore, Mayor Martin O'Malley is proposing new energy and cell phone taxes, and increased real estate fees to plug a $40 million hole in the fiscal 2005 budget.

Owens' proposed budget for fiscal 2005, which also includes $127 million in capital expenses, would include:

Full funding of the Board of Education's $440.7 million budget request, including money for 84 new teachers and 45 new assistant instructors in special education.

Construction money for the planned replacement or renovation of Tracey's, Seven Oaks and Harman elementary schools and Marley Middle School, and funding for all-day kindergarten at Ferndale Elementary.

A 7.6 percent increase in spending on the county Fire Department, including more than $2 million for 66 new positions.

A 6.8 percent increase in spending on the county Police Department, including money to add computers to 100 cars and to improve the department's radio communications system.

Full funding of the $28.1 million request from Anne Arundel Community College.

Raises of at least 2 percent for all county employees.

"I think she's doing amazingly well without raising taxes," said Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat.

Board of Education members said they were pleased to see their requests fully funded, adding that their strategy of cutting $7 million from Superintendent Eric J. Smith's budget request seemed to have paid off.

"To me, [this] is the way you do a budget," said Ned Carey, the board member who led efforts to cut Smith's proposal. "You listen to what [county officials] say" they can afford.

Owens' proposal also includes planning money for the North County Physical Education Facility and Pasadena Elementary School, and money for air conditioning at Arundel High School.

Smith said Owens' proposal for schools is "certainly one that meets our needs." He has said in the past, however, that he thinks progress will be slowed because the school board eliminated some of his academic initiatives, including expansion of gifted instruction and alternative education services.

Before listing the many increases in her budget, Owens explained that much of this year's revenue resulted from good fortune that might not recur next year.

The county received about $16 million more than projected from utility deregulation grants and a restructuring of the way the state distributes income tax revenues. The county also received almost $5 million more than expected in recordation and transfer taxes, the results of a hot real estate market.

"The reasons we make it through this year may just be a combination of one-time phenomena and deferred infrastructure," Owens said. "In the long term, there is no magic bullet that solves our fundamental fiscal problems."

Owens said the county, like the state government - which did little this spring to prevent a projected $800 million deficit next year - is getting by with patchwork. She warned that the state fiscal crisis might rip the patchwork to shreds.

"The structural deficit at the state level can mean chaos and tumult for our county beyond next year," she said. "The intractable positions of the state's executive and legislative branches produce only the certainty of more and perhaps devastating cuts to the counties."

State budget officials have warned that state contributions to retirement income for county employees could be cut this summer.

Owens trimmed the budget in some areas, eliminating 58 vacant positions for a projected savings of $2.6 million and increasing the percentage of health care costs to be paid by county employees.

Sun staff writer Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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