Owens can add to her legacy

With new revenue, county executive to present her final budget proposal

April 30, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

In her final budget address tomorrow, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens will have the opportunity - through a surge of real estate taxes and state funding - to seal a legacy of improving education and preserving rural land.

Owens and other county officials declined to elaborate last week on the fiscal 2007 budget, which is expected to exceed the current $1.3 billion spending plan.

But if it reflects the message of the two-term Democrat over the past few months, she will direct significant capital funding toward bolstering the infrastructure in West County, in preparation for at least 20,000 defense jobs coming to Fort Meade in the next decade.

Owens has called for the creation of a county police substation in Laurel and a math-and-science magnet program at Meade High School.

"I hope everyone is pleased with the budget," said Owens, who is pondering a bid for Congress or state comptroller.

County teachers will be among those waiting with anticipation. The Board of Education agreed in March to raise teachers' pay 6 percent annually in a tentative, three-year labor package. The union said pay must be increased to be more competitive with that offered in surrounding jurisdictions.

The school board set aside $30 million for the salary increases in its $801.7 million budget for fiscal 2007. Owens can cut the school budget request before adding it to her own spending proposal.

At the time of the labor deal, Owens said the county could only commit to funding one year at a time.

County Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, said the salary increases for teachers are a must.

"If we want the brightest and the best, we need to compete for brightest and the best," Beidle said.

The County Council will be curious to see whether Owens sets aside millions to prepare for an accounting rules change that will kick in starting in fiscal 2008. The change will require governments to report the size of their health care retirement commitments for current and future retirees.

County budget director John Hammond said Friday the county's commitment would be less than $100 million annually over the next 30 years.

"There's duty on the council and county executive to prepare those who follow," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican.

Last year, council members praised the spending priorities of Owens, who used a $232 million capital budget to knock out many one-time road, school and emergency service projects that had been on the books for years. She also provided 4 percent raises for teachers and 3 percent raises and merit increases for other county employees.

While the county feels the pressure of rising energy costs and the confines of a revenue-tax cap, county officials said Owens' long-standing priorities will shine through.

"Education, public safety, environmental stewardship, and mostly importantly fiscal responsibility - this budget will reflect all of that," said Sushant Sidh, the county's chief lobbyist.

A windfall of cash has boosted the county's coffers.

The General Assembly directed $373 million in operating and capital funds to Anne Arundel County this year, a nearly $50 million increase over last year. Much of the extra money has been directed for open-space programs, school construction and road improvements.

The county received nearly $23 million from the state in school construction funds. That money, the most garnered during the Owens administration, will be used to finish construction and renovation of several schools.

Included was $2.4 million to build science labs at Meade High School - a necessary first step in establishing a magnet program, Owens said.

She has pushed that initiative since January and won the support of defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. as a financial partner.

Owens declined to say whether she would direct county funding for the magnet program next year.

Another area of opportunity will be land preservation. The state approved this year $16 million for the county for open-space projects, giving Owens a chance to add to the 6,200 acres of farmland she has preserved.

Beidle pointed to Owens' land preservation efforts as her greatest accomplishment.

"That's the greatest legacy she will leave. ... This [budget] may be one more piece of that."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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