Council size risk to budget

Plan's failure to get four votes would change scenario for passage


The already depleted County Council likely will be limited to just four members this week when it considers amendments and votes on County Executive David R. Craig's proposed budget for next year, a scenario that would restrict Craig's veto power over amendments.

The expected absence of Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp this week would leave the council with four members Tuesday night, and Councilman Lance C. Miller has stated that he will vote against the budget. The county charter requires four votes for the budget to pass.

A "no" vote wouldn't leave the county without a budget, however. The charter provides a safety net, with one proviso: The budget would become law, as amended, but Craig would lose his ability to veto amendments made by the council.

With no knowledge of possible amendments, Craig said he couldn't assess how deliberation over his $740 million spending proposal will play out.

"The council has been secretive amongst themselves of their plans, so I'm not convinced I'd be scratching stuff out anyway," Craig said.

The council -- which will meet at 2 p.m. tomorrow in a special session to work on amendments -- has been operating with just five members in recent weeks. Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith is being treated for leukemia, and Robert G. Cassilly was deployed to Iraq.

Stepp informed officials late last week that she would be leaving for a vacation.

"The big vote was last week," she said, referring to amendments made to a new salary package for county employees.

Council members unanimously amended that measure last week to strike the reclassification of several positions, including a more prominent liaison to the agriculture community who would have received a $20,000 pay increase.

A vote on the amended pay package also is on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting and needs five votes to pass, according to Council President Robert S. Wagner.

Disagreements over the job re-classification measure widened a rift between Craig and the council -- particularly Wagner and Miller.

Craig said a reclassification and minor pay increase for existing department chiefs -- totaling $90,000 -- had been misrepresented by council members as new jobs, while some council members said Craig was disguising a bloating of the administrative ranks.

Miller said he was acting as a "true Republican" in opposing the moves, a sentiment some right-leaning political observers said they share.

Councilman Richard C. Slutzky said the relationship between the executive and council was not beyond repair.

"I think that the council would like to find the mechanism to work well with the executive and to have a clear understanding of how to move the agendas of each body forward, but there's obviously been confusion and a lack of understanding on a couple major issues," he said.

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