Executive trims budget requests

`Challenging economic times' lead Baltimore County to seek less funding from state

January 08, 2008|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

In anticipation of less money being available from the state, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. presented a leaner wish list to state lawmakers yesterday, including about half the amount he asked for last year to fund local projects such as new parks.

This year, Smith is seeking about $5 million in bond bills for such projects as the Heritage Trail in eastern Baltimore County and a new agricultural center.

Last year, the county requested double that amount -- $10 million -- for such projects and received about $5 million.

The executive is also requesting $80.7 million for school construction and renovations, after receiving a record $52.5 million last year from the state for schools.

Projects on the county's list include renovations at Old Court, Cockeysville and Pine Grove middle schools, and additions at Catonsville Middle, Dogwood Elementary and Loch Raven high schools.

Last year, the county asked for $95 million in school funding.

"It is not easy providing needed government services and programs in challenging economic times," Smith said in his annual address to members who represent the county in the General Assembly, which begins its 90-day legislative session tomorrow.

Smith called the county's top priority "protection from any further reduction in county funding by the state."

Already, state budget cuts have cost the county about $38 million, and further cuts are possible, county officials said.

The cuts have been primarily in funding for education and road and highway repairs, said Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman.

In addition to fiscal issues, Smith spoke about legislation intended to correct problems identified by county officials.

For example, Smith said that Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger will be seeking authorization for law enforcement officials to release the names and photographs of violent offenders who escape from a juvenile detention center.

In July, two teenagers escaped from the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School and eluded authorities for several weeks. And in May, 10 teenagers escaped from the northern Baltimore County facility.

Smith said he was also supporting legislation to:

Authorize speed cameras throughout Maryland.

Allow authorities to confiscate proceeds of identity theft, as they do the profits of drug crimes.

Require pawnshops and scrap and precious-metal dealers to report transactions electronically.

In the past two years, the number of reported thefts of scrap metal more than quadrupled from 43 in 2005 to 198 through November last year, according to county police.

The thefts are often of such items as downspouts in homes under construction, said Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman.

The legislation would require the metal dealers to track who is selling them the scrap metal, Toohey said.

General Assembly members representing Baltimore County also talked yesterday about their priorities.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Democrat representing Owings Mills, Reisterstown and Pikesville, said he wants the licensing process of group homes for juveniles to be restructured.

He also said he supports evaluations of group homes being available to the public and increased involvement by the state Department of Education with group home residents.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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