Arundel budget adds 66 to fire crews

Final $969 million plan includes department hires

May 28, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Seeking to reduce a Fire Department overtime tab widely viewed as excessive, the Anne Arundel County Council approved the hiring of 66 new firefighters as part of a $969 million operating budget adopted yesterday.

The spending plan also included money to hire 84 additional teachers, to boost the Police Department's budget and to give raises to county employees.

In other business yesterday, the council lowered the property tax rate by 1.4 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The council made minor changes to County Executive Janet S. Owens' proposal for the budget year that begins July 1, which will increase funding for schools and public safety without any tax increases.

"This is such a happy day," Owens said of the budget, which represents an 8 percent increase over the current year. "I just think it's a terrific budget. And we got through it without too much unrest."

Owens credited a booming real estate market and better-than-expected level of state funding for helping the county's fiscal situation. She struck a more optimistic note yesterday than she had in many months, saying the county is "positioned to deal with whatever's coming in the future in state or federal cuts."

Previously, she had warned that the county's services and infrastructure would deteriorate if residents and County Council members continued to resist higher taxes.

The head of the firefighters union said he was pleased with the 66 new firefighter positions. The new hires at the 629-employee department will help reduce the record $7 million overtime tab that firefighters ran up in the fiscal year that ended June 30 as a result of bare-bones staffing and ineffective management controls.

"The citizens will see a dollar reduction in overtime, and they can rest assured that they have a [better] quality of care because people are more rested and not being overworked," union President Keith W. Wright said.

The Sun reported last year that Anne Arundel was spending millions more on firefighter overtime than other Baltimore-area counties. Owens appointed a committee to study the problems and in March forced out Chief Roger C. Simonds, who headed the department during the overtime controversy.

The budget also includes money to hire 84 additional teachers - many of whom will be assigned to high schools to ease overburdened staffs - and 45 special-education teaching assistants.

Yesterday's 6-1 vote ended a relatively peaceful budget process. "It's been a light-years difference between the process last year and this year," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. of Pasadena.

The last budget season was marred by bitter teacher protests after scarcer revenues caused Owens to freeze employee salaries while funding millions of dollars in academic initiatives requested by schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk cast the lone dissenting vote yesterday.

In an emotional speech to the rest of the council, Samorajczyk, a frequent critic of Owens, said she was upset that the budget did not include a fire station for the Annapolis Neck neighborhood in her district. The Annapolis-area Democrat also said she felt city residents were being asked to pay too much in property taxes to the county.

There's much I support in this budget, but this is so egregious and inequitable that I do vote against the budget, she said.

The county also approved $127 million in capital projects, including: *$14.5 million to chip away at a $57 million road-maintenance backlog.

*$31 million toward replacing or modernizing five schools: Traceys, Harman and Pasadena elementary schools; Marley Middle; and Ferndale Early Childhood Learning Center.

*$2 million for a new emergency operations center, and another $2 million to enlarge and renovate the Jones Station and West Annapolis fire stations.

*$5.3 million to build a public swimming pool in North County.

*$3.5 million toward an air-conditioning system for Arundel High, the only county high school without air-conditioning.

The council also lowered the property tax rate to 94.1 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Because the assessed value of homes has risen, the council was required to adjust the rate so that revenue would not pierce a tax limit established by voters.

But even with that tax rate reduction, the owner of a home assessed at $182,000 will have to pay $6 more in property taxes because of rising assessments, said John Hammond, the county's budget officer.

Budget highlights

66 new firefighter positions

84 new teachers and 45 special-education teaching assistants

Raises of at least 2 percent for all county employees

Computers for 100 police cars

Addition of $3 million to the county's rainy-day fund, for a total $30 million.

Source: County executive's office

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