Plan seeks budget power

Samorajczyk bill would give County Council more control over spending

July 11, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Barbara D. Samorajczyk believes many Anne Arundel residents would be stunned to learn how little power she and her County Council colleagues have to shape the annual county budget.

So the Annapolis Democrat is pushing a bill that would give county voters a chance to hand the council more control over spending priorities.

If passed in a countywide referendum, the proposed changes would allow the council to add items to the county executive's budget on a 5-2 vote.

The council, which can only cut items from the budget now, would not be allowed to exceed maximum spending levels set by the county executive. Rumblings about a shift in power began after a particularly contentious budget negotiation in 2003.

"I believe most people in the county think the council has a meaningful role in creating the budget, but it does not," said Samorajczyk, a frequent critic of County Executive Janet S. Owens, a fellow Democrat. "Under this executive, the budget has been done unilaterally. We have never even known what was in it until hearing the county executive's budget message."

The bill has already drawn sharp criticism from the Owens administration, with officials saying the current budget process works well.

"The county executive supports the intent of the authors of our county's charter," said Owens spokeswoman Jody Couser. "They designed a strong form of executive governance with a county executive who is elected countywide to concentrate on the immediate and future needs of the entire county."

In testimony at a hearing on the bill Tuesday, county budget officer John Hammond said it would be irresponsible to give the council more budget power without giving the executive veto power over budget additions.

"If the County Council adds to the budget, the legislative branch will have dictatorial power over the budget," Hammond said in a statement. "This is inconsistent with a system that is based on checks and balances."

The bill has drawn a mixed response from fellow council members, with some saying they might support a watered-down version and others saying the county does not need a change.

Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale said she does not believe the council should be able to add or subtract items from the budget, but that it should have more power to adjust spending priorities.

"I have no problem putting the issue before the voters," said Vitale, a Severna Park Republican.

However, Council Chairman Edward C. Middlebrooks, a Republican from Glen Burnie, said the existing system has produced reasonable budgets.

"You have to ask yourself what problem you're really fixing," he said.

Despite the lively debate, the issue has not made much of a public ripple. No one showed up to speak at a public hearing on the bill last Tuesday.

The council cannot give itself more budget power. It can only vote to send the issue to a referendum this fall.

Under the current system, the county executive issues a budget proposal in early May, and the council then holds hearings for the next few weeks before deciding what, if any cuts, its wants to make.

If the county executive does not fully fund the Board of Education's requested budget, the council can approve additional school spending without Owens' approval -- but it has to make cuts elsewhere to maintain the same total budget. Otherwise, the council cannot add to the budget at all.

If the council opts not to vote for the proposed spending plan, the county executive's original budget stands.

That means the power to set policy through spending lies almost entirely with the county executive. The executive branch holds similar power on the state level and in Baltimore and Howard counties.

However, in virtually every other state, elected county boards and councils have greater power to shape spending priorities.

In peaceful budget seasons such as this year's, the imbalance of authority does not lead to much carping.

But 2003 was a different story. The council made cuts to avoid a pay freeze proposed by Owens, but she laid off 18 employees while keeping money in contingency accounts. Though several council members opposed the maneuver, they were powerless to stop her.

The conflict left some council members frustrated and talking about change.

Samorajczyk said the council's budget hearings are often a waste of time, because the panel has no power to meet the needs expressed by various departments and agencies.

She cited her inability in the last couple of years to garner more funding for a new fire station in the Annapolis Neck area of her district as an example of the council's impotence.

But Hammond argued such examples do not show the system is broken.

"Just because a capital project is not being constructed or an operating expense is not being made does not unilaterally mean that the budget process is at fault," he said.

Samorajczyk said she is not optimistic her referendum bill will pass because council members supporting the measure might fear political retribution from the official controlling the purse strings: the county executive.

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