Anne Arundel Council to vote on property tax rate

The Anne Arundel County Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposed 3-cent property tax increase designed to help balance the county's budget, following a recent meeting at which a divided council slashed county spending by more than $19 million.

Despite spending cuts to the community college and the police vehicle fleet, and a delay of construction funding for Severna Park High School, more cuts could be on the horizon. To balance County Executive John R. Leopold's proposed $1.2 billion budget for the next fiscal year, the council could increase the property tax, make more cuts, or approve a combination of the two options.

In a Friday night meeting that ended at midnight, the council made a series of budget cuts, including several spending decreases proposed by County Auditor Teresa Sutherland, who warned that county finances were "unsustainable."

Under Leopold's plan, the county would have its first layoffs in 20 years, cutting 35 employee positions that are vacant and 14 that are now filled. All county employees would be furloughed for 12 days, amounting to a pay cut of about 5 percent.

Leopold's spokesman, Dave Abrams, criticized council efforts to trim the budget. "We're disappointed that the council is micromanaging government operations and making short-sighted decisions that will negatively impact our ability to provide key services," he said.

After hours of delay as council members worked on amendments to the spending plan, the council approved plans that could force Anne Arundel Community College to increase its tuition and give employees a 5 percent cut in pay.

Public schools were spared any further cuts beyond Leopold's proposed $6 million spending decrease over last year. But the council delayed by two years construction of a new school building for Severna Park High, a move that sparked objections from Council Chairman Richard Ladd, a Republican representing the area.

Instead, the council voted to fund construction projects at six elementary schools. Changes to the construction schedule bring it back in line with the county's school construction priority list. Leopold had pushed Severna Park ahead of the elementary schools last year.

Bob Mosier, a spokesman for county school system, said he was "relieved" there weren't more cuts to its budget. Mosier added that the school system advocates for construction funding for all of its schools.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a two-term Laurel Democrat, called the budget deliberations "one of the toughest years, no question."

"It was a reflection of the fact that the last council, as much as we were colleagues, we were friends," said Benoit. "And that's just not the case now."

Councilman Derek Fink, a Republican from Pasadena, proposed an across-the-board 1 percent spending decrease, which failed in a 4-3 vote.

"We can't afford to have the government that we have," said Fink. "We can't continue to fund the budget using a band-aid approach … there has to be some real structural cuts to the budget."

County budget officer John Hammond decried most of the cuts and lashed out when the council voted to strip department heads of their ability to use county cars.

"If it's cars this year, will it be computers next year?" said Hammond. "Will employees be expected to bring their own computers next year?"

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