County budget includes raises

Smith plans $37 million to renovate middle schools

April 15, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. unveiled a $1.45 billion budget proposal yesterday that provides across-the-board raises for county employees for the second straight year, money to eliminate a tuition increase at the Community College of Baltimore County and more than $37 million to help finish a systematic renovation of the county's middle schools.

The budget plan, presented to the County Council yesterday morning, holds the line on taxes, but more than doubles the amount spent on capital projects while adding staff to accommodate the opening of a new school, a new police precinct and a newly expanded jail.

After two years of doom and gloom about the state of the overall economy, Smith said yesterday that the county's strong financial reserves - which swelled this year thanks to higher-than-expected revenue from real estate transfer taxes - played a part in his decision-making.

And because the capital projects are one-time expenses, he said, "I'm not building into next year's budget a demand for this money."

The council, which cannot add to Smith's proposal but can cut from it, will hold a public hearing on the budget April 26, and is expected to approve a spending plan by June 1, said Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder.

"We all need time to look over it, and that's what we'll do," he said.

Council members pointed to aspects of the proposal that they liked - from higher-than-usual salary increases for employees to $300,000 to replace instruments in the county schools' music program.

"We've been fiscally responsible, and we've been very cautious," said Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

"I think the county executive presented his budget based on that," he said. "He knows our values and our principles."

Under Smith's spending plan, teachers will receive a 4 percent pay increase and general county employees will receive 3 percent. For police and firefighters, the average pay increase will be 4.5 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively.

Union leaders said yesterday that they were generally pleased with the raises, although the head of the county's teachers union said the county needs to "build on it each year" to keep the school system competitive in recruiting and retention efforts.

"If we can consistently make gains each year, that is good for our teachers," said Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

The $1.45 billion general fund budget is part of a larger $2.17 billion spending plan for the county, which also accounts for money from so-called "special funds," which include state and federal aid.

Smith's budget is an increase of $124 million over last year's.

This year, as in the last two, Smith is proposing to use money from the county's reserve funds to balance the budget, although officials said the $53 million will be used to off-set one-time project costs.

The budget includes no increase in the piggyback income tax or property tax of $1.115 per $100 of assessed value, although it anticipates an additional $30 million from the latter based on rising assessments.

Smith's budget includes an increase of more than $54 million in the public school budget, more than half of which will go toward the middle school renovation projects.

It also includes a $3.4 million increase in CCBC's budget, which the executive said he included to help maintain class sizes, eliminate the need for a $3 per-credit-hour tuition increase for in-county students and to replace old classroom furniture.

Officials with the community college, who have had to balance the system's financial books with enrollment increasing even as other funding sources stagnated, lauded the budget yesterday.

"We're very appreciative to the county. It shows the confidence they have in our board," said Francis X. Kelly, the chairman of the community college's board of trustees.

The budget includes additional officers for two of the county's police precincts and for extra emergency medical technicians in two fire stations. Other staff are included as part of an expansion of school programs and other county initiatives.

The spending plan would also pay for defibrillators in the county's senior centers and add $8.2 million to a business loan fund.

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