Arundel council faces tough choices on budget

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold spent months working on what he called the "most difficult and most challenging" budget proposal of his five-year tenure, and soon the County Council, with a majority of freshman Republicans, will formally begin the job of choosing: property tax increase or further budget cuts.

Although they had not seen the details of a nearly $1.2 billion operating budget hundreds of pages long, at least four of seven council members were leaning against or were strictly opposed to Republican Leopold's proposed property tax hike, especially as a few of them recently won election for the first time while promising not to raise taxes. The increase would add $30 for every $100,000 of property value and raise about $20 million in new revenue.

Council Chairman Richard B. Ladd, one of the four Republican freshmen, said there will be no easy choices as the council begins budget deliberations in the first week of May. To convince residents that the tax increase is a good idea, Ladd said, the council would have to show that "the pain we're asking them to take is less than the pain we're going to inflict on others."

Ladd said he was not happy about the prospect of a tax increase and did not believe his colleagues were, either.

"I don't think people are going to embrace it gladly," Ladd said.

Without the tax increase Leopold presented to the council Friday, that money would have to be made up somewhere.

The operating budget proposal closes an $80 million gap between revenues and expenses by cutting $60 million and raising the balance in the property tax increase. The plan includes 12 furlough days, amounting to a 4.6 percent pay cut for thousands of county employees. For the first time in nearly 20 years, the proposed budget includes layoffs, eliminating 35 positions that are vacant and 14 that are now filled. Leopold said every effort would be made to find jobs for all those whose positions were being cut.

The proposal increases spending by $17.9 million, or 1.5 percent, but much of that comes in costs over which the county has no control, including higher costs for pensions, health insurance, the cost of maintaining per-student spending required by state law and new administrative costs for the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Budget officer John R. Hammond said 80 percent of government expenses go to personnel, and significant cuts inevitably would have to include jobs.

Council Vice Chairman Derek Fink, a Republican, said, "I don't see a scenario where I can support a tax increase. … Which means we're going to have to find cuts."

Without having looked through the numbers, said Fink, who promised not to raise property taxes in his campaign, he could not say how the budget could be trimmed. He said he would look for "responsible cuts."

Republican John Grasso said, "I campaigned that I wouldn't raise taxes. I want to stick to my promise."

Grasso said he would not rule out supporting an increase if he were convinced there was no choice, but he said he thought there was room for more cuts and more revenue. He mentioned, for example, the possibility of pressing for full participation by residents and business in the county's recycling program as a way to raise money by selling recyclable materials. In March, he said, the county earned $7,000 on plastic bottles alone.

He could not go into detail about potential cuts, but minutes after the county executive finished his budget message, Grasso said he would cut the $10,000 Leopold mentioned that was being allocated for citizenship training for legal immigrants.

"I'm not big on these freebie programs," said Grasso. "I think you get out of life what you put into it."

Daryl Jones, one of two Democrats who has served on the council since 2006, said he would also not support a tax increase. He said he would not back cuts in the Community Action Agency or county libraries, but otherwise, he said, "you have to have everything in play."

Councilman Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat serving his first term, said he understands that a tax increase would be hardest on people living on fixed incomes, but he said many of those same people also depend on county services. He said he was open to a tax increase, especially as this one would not exceed the limit on property tax revenue increases set by voters in 1992.

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