Council finds little to cut in '05 budget

Balto. Co. spending plan has few new programs

final vote due by June 1

May 14, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County councilmen began their annual wrangling with department heads over budget cuts this week, but so far they've found little to trim.

Because county revenues aren't growing as fast as they did in the 1990s, the proposed $1.3 billion budget for 2004-2005 is relatively austere for the third year in a row, with few new programs and initiatives. County Executive James T. Smith Jr. put most of next year's spending increase into higher salaries for employees, which councilmen have said they support.

"There's not much in the budget," Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley said. "We all knew that coming in."

Under the Baltimore County charter, the executive proposes the annual budget in April. The council can cut from it but cannot add money or shift it from one line item to another.

The county auditor, who is part of the legislative branch, pores over the executive's proposal and suggests cuts, which the council reviews during meetings in May. The budget has to be approved by June 1.

The meetings tend not to be dramatic. Most frequently, the proposed cuts don't stem from debates over the direction of county spending or efforts to root out waste, but over accounting details, usually estimates of employee turnover.

It works like this: If a position is vacant for any stretch of time, the county saves on salary costs. The auditor identifies job categories in which he thinks, based on precedent, that turnover will be higher than the department head predicts. When the department heads march into the County Council's meeting room, they provide detailed explanations of why they think the auditor is wrong.

This can go on for hours.

Even with little to cut, the meetings offer insight into the problems and policy shifts the county anticipates in the coming year.

On Wednesday, Mary B. Roper, the Bureau of Solid Waste Management chief, told councilmen that the county is attempting in next year's budget to increase compensation for garbage collectors and to increase the per-house rates that garbage contractors are paid for some routes.

The county has been successful in keeping down the rates, but the compensation for contractors is so low that some are threatening to get out of the business, she said.

"Vendors aren't making money, and they can't stay in if they're not making money," Roper said.

Also on Wednesday, Economic Development Director David S. Iannucci lobbied to keep extra money in a revolving loan fund that helps entrepreneurs start or expand businesses, saying that he expects an uptick in business activity this year.

"I am encouraged, particularly by the last two months," Iannucci said. "There is a great increase in activity, but there still is conservatism in pulling the trigger and signing leases and hiring employees."

Yesterday, the police and fire chiefs appeared before the council and played down the possibility that new retirement incentives will lead to departmental brain drains.

The county approved this year deferred retirement programs for police and firefighters that allow for large cash payouts - sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars - for people who serve more than the minimum number of years for retirement.

Both chiefs said it's possible that the program will spur additional retirements from those who have passed the service threshold, but added that recruitment programs are strong enough to make up for the losses.

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