Arundel council's rocky relationships mar first budget debate

Tensions come to a head during marathon session

May 28, 2011|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

As it became clear that the millions of dollars budgeted for construction of a new Severna Park High School were about to evaporate under his watch, Anne Arundel County Council Chairman Richard Ladd exploded with a tirade from the council dais, his face turning a faint shade of crimson.

"This is all about politics!" the freshman Republican legislator from Severna Park howled, before setting his sights on two of his Democratic colleagues.

The outburst came near the end of a marathon session during which the County Council drafted and voted on more than 100 amendments to County Executive John R. Leopold's proposed $1.2 billion budget, ultimately trimming about $19 million in a series of painful cuts that will cause tuition increases at Anne Arundel Community College and a 3-cent increase in the county's property tax rate.

Tensions on the Republican-leaning council, with five new members, have grown contentious just six months into its four-year-term, and reached a boiling point during the recent budget battles.

The process of amending the county executive's proposed budget has generally run smoothly in the past, with the council voting unanimously on large blocks of amendments at once. But during an acrimonious budget session that ended Tuesday with passage of the budget, the council battled over several of the proposed changes.

Instead of smoothing out the details behind the scenes, many of the council members apparently had discussion with each other before the public meeting, where the council's rancorous relationship was on full display.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat in his second term on the council, summed up his feelings after a meeting May 20 ended at midnight. "The last council — as much as we were colleagues, we were friends," said Benoit. "And that's just not the case now."

The council was scheduled to meet and vote on amendments at 10 a.m. May 20. No one was ready. It was pushed back to early afternoon.

Republican Councilman John J. Grasso of Glen Burnie chatted while he waited. He was ready to go, he said; it was the others who were "playing politics."

Republican Councilman Derek Fink of Pasadena decided on drafting an amendment that would cut spending across all county departments by 1 percent — an approximately $10 million savings. The proposal ultimately failed, with only Fink and Grasso voting for the amendment. Fink later reintroduced the amendment with some tweaks. It failed again.

"We can't afford to have the government that we have," said Fink, as the county's number-crunchers went to work writing the particulars of his amendment. "We can't continue to fund the budget using a Band-Aid approach. …There has to be some real structural cuts to the budget."

Fink, in a not-so-veiled dig at his Republican colleague, Councilman Jerry Walker, said the delay was due, in part, to the council's "Republican minority." The council has four Republicans and three Democrats. Walker, who represents the rural southern part of the county, has been dubbed as a sort of outcast among the council Republicans — Fink, Grasso and Ladd are the other GOP members — since he voted with the Democrats on a bill altering the county's binding arbitration agreement with its public safety employees, angering his fellow Republicans.

Walker disputed the notion that he's some sort of closet Democrat, calling it "disingenuous." He pointed out that many of the amendments supported by his fellow Republicans that he voted against were also opposed by the Republican Leopold administration. Before casting his vote to raise the property tax rate, Walker introduced a bill that would decrease the income tax rate, saving taxpayers about $4 million. His three Republican colleagues voted against the property tax rate increase.

"I'm a Republican," said Walker. "I voted the way I thought I needed to vote. … They had plenty of time to approach me with their amendments and seek my support. I'm willing to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me."

By 3 p.m., amendments were still being drafted. Walker walked into his office, smiling as he spoke on his cellphone. Grasso stood outside the council chambers complaining about people on "food stamps" and other government subsidies. Ladd, knowing his district's signature project was on the chopping block, paced the council chambers. Taking advantage of the nice weather, Benoit took a walk in downtown Annapolis.

The council finally convened after 8 p.m.

During the nearly 10-hour delay, many of the council members apparently drafted amendments without much input from their colleagues. The lack of consultation showed. Several amendments introduced were repeats of colleagues' amendments — though the sizes of the proposed cuts differed by a few thousand dollars.

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