Leopold unveils budget, to dismay of schools

May 02, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

Trying to set an example of fiscal discipline, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold yesterday unveiled a $1.44 billion budget plan that does not raise income taxes, drops the property tax rate and indefinitely continues a hiring freeze on nearly 200 positions.

While his announcement of $10 million in administrative cuts was applauded during his budget address in Annapolis, many school officials expressed disappointment - or outright disdain - at his decision to increase school funding by about 8 percent, instead of the 17 percent they sought.

Leopold funded 213 new school positions, a negotiated 6 percent raise for teachers and an unanticipated 6 percent pay increase for principals. But he recommended the school system trim 3.5 percent from its administrative costs, as Anne Arundel braces for a decline in state aid while facing a school maintenance backlog and infrastructure improvements around Fort Meade.

"It's time for the government to act more like a business," Leopold said in a news conference after his budget address. "We ought to plow new ground in a time that requires fiscal responsibility."

But school Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell, who unsuccessfully petitioned Leopold to raise the county's income tax, disagreed with that assessment.

"Two percent of our budget is administration," Maxwell said. "United Way of America's administrative costs are 11 percent. The Boy Scouts of America are 6 percent. Anne Arundel County schools is 2 percent. We need administrators to help manage an $800 million budget. Everyone needs administrators. The county government has it. [Administration] is not a bad word. We cannot run like a business."

Anticipating that their $941 million proposal would be slashed, Maxwell and the six school board members who supported his plan declined to attend the first address by the Republican executive, who took office five months ago. They watched portions of it on TV from their office five miles away.

Leopold also announced he would cut the property tax rate from 91.8 cents to 89.1 cents per $100 of assessed value to counter rising property assessments, but he secured the maximum amount of revenue under the tax cap.

His budget sets aside $5 million to address health care costs for retired county workers. Recent accounting changes forced local and state governments to set aside money for future benefits for active employees. County officials estimated that obligation could exceed $70 million annually. But bond analysts in New York said that the county's initial payment was adequate.

On the public safety side, Leopold added supervisors and training at the county's 911 operations center, funded 30 new firefighter positions for the Annapolis Neck Fire Station and budgeted for the installation of streetlights in high-crime areas.

To enhance recreational opportunities, Leopold included $2 million to renovate Quiet Waters Ice Rink in Annapolis. If the funding is approved, the facility could be reopened by winter 2009.

Leopold also said he will set aside $2.2 million to begin a four-year program to install artificial turf at high school athletic fields.

The council can subtract from but not add to the proposed $1.22 billion operating and $219 million capital spending plans. It must approve a budget by the end of the month.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Ruma Kumar contributed to this article.

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