Balto. County Avoids Budget Blues

2010 Plan Includes Raises And Funds Capital Projects, With No Layoffs Or Furloughs

April 15, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. proposed on Tuesday a $2.5 billion budget that avoids increases in property or income taxes and gives cost-of-living raises to teachers and other county employees, though it does include a modest increase in water and sewer rates.

Unlike some other Maryland jurisdictions, Baltimore County envisions no furloughs, layoffs or hiring freezes, and will probably add to its work force in education and public safety in the coming year, officials said.

"This is a lean, mean budget with no pork, but it is also a solid budget that addresses the priorities that will move Baltimore County forward," Smith said.

County Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder said he expects only minimal improvement in the economy in 2011 and sees the possibility of midyear cuts to the 2010 budget, which takes effect July 1.

"We are fortunate that we are managing," Bartenfelder said. "But, in these times, we have to continually keep an eye on the budget and work on the next fiscal year."

County homeowners will see a 5 percent increase in water and sewer fees under the proposed budget. A family of four can expect to pay about $26 more annually in sewer fees and about $10 more a year for water service, officials said.

The budget calls for a 2 percent cost-of-living pay increase for county government employees. In the schools, the budget contains money for a 3.5 percent increase for teachers and a 2.4 percent increase for principals and assistant principals.

"It is not only significant, but really amazing that county employees are not facing layoffs and will be given modest increases," said Bartenfelder, a Fullerton-Overlea Democrat.

Last year, teachers protested with demonstrations and a work-to-rule job action after officials said financial constraints kept them from providing cost-of-living pay increases to any employees in the current budget.

The money saved by withholding those raises enabled the county to include in this budget proposal salary increases effective Jan. 1 for its 25,000 employees, officials said. The proposed budget also contains savings of $42 million in retirement benefit funding and $9 million in health benefit funding thanks to restructuring agreed to several years ago by employees unions, officials said.

While many other counties are facing cuts, Baltimore County seems to be weathering the storm well enough to be a model for the state, said Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a research institute based on free-market principles.

But, he cautioned, the economic crisis should force governments to look for efficiency in operations. "There is always room to cut in the budget," he said.

Roy G. Meyers, a professor of political science at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, pointed to the county's cash reserves, diverse economy and its relative wealth as factors in its ability to avoid cutbacks.

"Baltimore County ... has a strong bond rating and low debt service," said Meyers, who served on the county's spending affordability committee this year.

In Baltimore, Mayor Sheila Dixon has proposed laying off as many as 153 workers, closing recreation centers and swimming pools, and reducing library hours. Other proposed cost savings include a switch to once-weekly trash collection and an end to a Police Athletic League program designed to foster relationships between youngsters and officers.

In Harford County, Executive David R. Craig submitted a budget proposal that calls for many county employees to take five unpaid furlough days. The spending plan includes no pay increases for county workers.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold said his county is set to eliminate more than 100 vacant jobs, as well as dip into its $46 million rainy day fund for the first time as it tries to avoid layoffs.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said he expects that his budget will call for 12 or fewer layoffs and that he is considering furloughs for employees starting in July. He said there could also be reductions in services.

Baltimore County will stay well within its spending affordability limits and can proceed with planned capital projects, despite the loss of almost $37 million in state funding that the General Assembly announced last week, said Smith, a Democrat.

"We based this budget in light of those cuts and the revenues anticipated, all of which are lower than in the past," he said, noting a marked decline in revenue from the real estate title and recordation fees and the transfer tax, all tied to the slumping housing market. But he stressed that past revenue from those sources was used for one-time projects, not continuing expenses.

The proposed budget contains $33 million from those sources for capital projects, compared with $138 million in this year's budget.

The county has also set aside about $13 million to augment its pension fund and to mitigate losses from the underperforming investments in this fiscal year.

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