County Executive Robert R. Neall just finished explaining to a groupof fourth-graders that he sets the county's agenda when a little girl quizzed him about school board plans to save money.
Acting out the zero-sum game that will be played countless times before the budget is passed in May, Neall asked how many of the 108 students at Rippling Woods Elementary School in Glen Burnie would like to see counselors take the summer off.
Not a hand went up.
"Who wants to have recreation programs cut?" Neall tried again. Same response.
But when he asked "How many want to go to school only six months a year?" every hand in the room shot up.
"I think we have our question solved," Neall said with a laugh.
He quickly disappointed the students when he said cutting the school year is the only budget-cutting option beyond the pale.
But the short civic lesson demonstrated that, this year especially, tax dollars dictate county priorities more than any executive could.
Still suffering from a bruised spine injured during an automobile accident last summer, Neall barely moved from his desk last Monday as he talked for an hourabout his first three months in office.
His infirmity parallels anemic county revenue that is trickling in $9million less than original estimates.
The Office of the Budget expects the county to end the year with a $7.5 million surplus, down from $17 million predicted three months ago.
With revenue projections even gloomier for next year, Neall estimates the 1992 budget will be less than $610 million, down from $617 million this year. He must find about $32 million to cut from the budget to pay for bigger bills due next year for 1,500 new students, loan payments, fuel and utilitycost, merit raises and insurance.
But the fiscally conservative Republican has found little resistance ushering in this era of reduced expectations.
"He certainly hasn't ruffled any feathers. He's been most cooperative," said Annapolis County Councilwoman Maureen Lamb,one of three Democrats re-elected last year.
That bipartisan spirit has prevailed since the election, from which Neall emerged as the designated protector of overburdened taxpayers.
"I think somebody called me the doom-and-gloom guy buy I saw it coming," Neall said. "Ithink I was very forthright with people that there could be layoffs,there couldbe cutbacks."
Neall's most important move so far was to persuade five of the county's six unions to forgo negotiationsfor pay raises and extend their contracts until next year when the economy might improve.
But the unions' decision to delay talks might not have been entirely the pristine process represented to the public.
Councilman George Bachman, D-Linthicum said he advised the unions to seek better working conditions instead. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 582 came away with a county promise to consider upgrading pay for some jobs, he said.
"We negotiated some benefits for people," said Local 582 president Marvin Redding, who represents about 900 blue-collar workers. "We did not roll over and just accept what Neall lay down for us."
But he would not comment on what he won from the county.
Firefighters, who typically work one 24-hour day, then get two full days off, also won county backing to reduce their work week from 50 to 46 hours, Bachman said.
"That's not part of the negotiation at all," said Capt. Frank Stokes, president of Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters local 1563.
A tentative agreement to adjust hours has been reached by a union/county committee formed under terms of the current contract, said Stokes, whose union was alone in backing Neall's election.
"Nothing has been decided," Louise Hayman, Neall's press secretary, said.
However he won his peace with labor, Neall cannot expect it to last.
Like the county's Detention Center union, the four bargaining units representing the school board's 7,000 employees have not agreed to extend their contracts and have declared an impasse in negotiations.
Neall promises that front-line teachers will be held harmless from budget cuts. But he warns that the county cannot afford the Board of Education's 1992 proposal to spend $23 million morethan its current $330 million budget.
The school system has little room to cut before it hurts education, said Thomas Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.
"We cannot say, 'We didn't get any more money so you can't come to school this year," he said. "If they feel it's necessary in these tight times to cut back on the pay of employees, they should look at the (school board's) central services and make some of them 10-month employees."
So far, the debate has been confined to the Board of Education. But TAAAC the is developing plans for informational pickets to influence Neall's budget priorities.
"I'm ready, willing and able to cut the budget and I'm ready, willing and able to cut the property tax rate," said David G. Boschert, D-Crownsville, another returning councilman.
That sentiment has been popular on the council, both with Democrats and the two Republicans among its four new members.
"The folks in Anne Arundel County said they didn't want higher taxes and that attitude hasn't changed," Neall told 150 people who attended a citizens' budget Monday night in Glen Burnie.
Lester House, a 75-year-old resident of Hanover, summed up the feelings of many when he said taxpayers have lost patience with government finding new ways to taketheir money over the last 50 years.
But the crowd was silent moments before, when 15-year-old Becca Lyons told Neall how she has been helped by a horse-riding program the Department of Parks and Recreation sponsors for retarded and handicapped children.
"Please keep funds for the therapeutic recreation activities," she said, hiding a smile behind her hands. "Thank you. I love Anne Arundel County."
Neall has a simple personal goal in his first budget -- he wants people to understand him.
"I'm sure in every budget things hit the fan because there will be some people who asked for things that couldn't be accommodated," he said last week. "They might not be happy with the amount of money that we're spending. They might not be happy with the state of affairs. But what I'm hoping is that if they go through my thought process, they'll be able to see and understand and appreciate how I arrived at that conclusion."
But there is one groupthat doesn't want to see anything except a cut in the property tax rate this year, which Neall says is unlikely.
The Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association has withheld judgment on Neall.
But AATA president Robert Schaeffer said he lost patience when he learned that 53 merit employees have been hired and at least 52 contract workers have been approved or renewed despite a hiring freeze Neall imposed.
"I'mnot going to go bonkers until a decision has been made," said Schaeffer, who led a failed ballot effort last year to impose limits on county property tax revenues. "But we're back at the same old argument of those who claim we have to have all these services versus those whosay that the only unprotected group is the taxpayer."