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Arundel's Neall pinches pennies for the public

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANNAPOLIS -- It is the best of times, and it is the worst of times for Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall.

But mostly, it is the best of times.

While most Maryland politicians have cursed and kvetched over the dual burdens an economic recession foists upon government -- falling tax revenues and rising demands for services -- Mr. Neall has taken to fiscal austerity like a disciple of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Small wonder. The 43-year-old Republican built a 12-year career in the House of Delegates as the high priest of fiscal conservatism, preaching his penny-pinching orthodoxy from the pulpit of the House Appropriations Committee.

Since last December when he took the reins of Anne Arundel government from Democrat O. James Lighthizer, he has devoted himself almost exclusively to saving money -- to the point that even his supporters wonder when his vision will extend beyond the ledger.

An illustration of Mr. Neall's penchant for rubbing dimes together, and encouraging his top managers to do the same, occurred two weeks ago at the annual Maryland Association of Counties meeting at Ocean City.

Last year, Mr. Lighthizer's administration spent $41,000 at the association meeting, including nearly $10,000 to toast fellow pols and bureaucrats and munch on expensive seafood delicacies at a gala reception.

This year, Mr. Neall paid $400 from his own pocket to cover his room and registration fees to attend the same event.

A reception with Baltimore and Baltimore County as joint hosts cost Anne Arundel taxpayers less than $4,500.

"People need to know I'm bending over backward to be careful with their money," said Mr. Neall, who also has made a point of ripping up more than a quarter of the credit cards issued to top county employees and restricting out-of-state travel.

"Four hundred bucks does not a government make, but people thought something bad was going on with their money. It was important to be at MACO, but I have to recognize that perception."

More significantly, Mr. Neall has made genuine reductions in the county budget without employee layoffs, preferring to freeze hiring and restrict spending shortly after taking office.

His $616 million fiscal 1992 spending plan adopted in the spring was slightly smaller than the previous year's -- a first in the 25-year history of the county's charter.

Then, within weeks after the budget year began July 1, he announced $10 million more in cuts because he wasn't happy with the first month's tax revenues and was fearful that Gov. William Donald Schaefer would cut aid to local governments.

Aides say virtually every decision Mr. Neall makes must have a cost-benefit analysis attached to it.

"In my public career, I've never worked for anyone whose principal focus is fiscal impact like Bob Neall," said Dennis H. Parkinson, Mr. Neall's budget officer and a former deputy state budget and fiscal planning secretary.

"That's the reason I ran for county executive -- to reduce the cost of government while maintaining services," Mr. Neall said. "The booming '80s are over, and I put myself to the voters as the person with demonstrated ability to squeeze a dollar in tough times."

But what has been remarkable in Mr. Neall's frugal first year in office -- remarkable even to him -- has been that his miserly ways have not soured his political honeymoon.

So far at least, there has been little public criticism of his administration. Unions accepted contract extensions with no across-the-board raises with nary a whimper. The Democratic majority on the County Council has been equally quiet.

Mr. Neall credits that success to keeping an open office door and open budget books.

What those books showed potential naysayers, Mr. Neall said, ++ was that the county could not possibly support a pay raise without an increase in property tax rates -- a truly unpopular idea in the wake of last year's property tax revolt.

Where Mr. Lighthizer boasted of running government as a Fortune 500 company, Mr. Neall sees it more as a public service enterprise "whose burden goes up as the economy goes down."

Councilman David G. Boschert, D-4th, of Crownsville, said, "The only reason we're in a love-fest is that we know we're all in this situation together. The executive is right on track."

Thomas J. Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said all the good will could easily change if Mr. Neall asks county employees to go another year without raises, an idea the executive has not ruled out if the recession continues.

"I was disappointed we didn't negotiate a salary increase for teachers this year, but I appreciate the fiscal situation," Mr. Paolino said. "One year [without a raise] is OK. Two years in a row would be totally unacceptable."

While his budget decisions generally have received rave reviews, Mr. Neall's non-budget agenda seems thin.

Nearly a year into his four-year term, some people -- including aides in his own administration -- are wondering if the county executive plans to lead county government toward anything besides efficiency.

A former Lighthizer administration official, who asked that he not be identified by name, said Mr. Neall's "fixation" with the budget has demonstrated his lack of vision for the county.

"There's not a level of vision and leadership -- it's like the whole building fell asleep," he said.

David Almy, Mr. Neall's former campaign manager and now head of the county's office on drug and alcohol abuse, agreed that the executive has not set a course for Anne Arundel County.

"The question of what to do now that the budget's struck is weighing on him," Mr. Almy said. "As a former legislator, his instinct is to be reactive. It's going to take him a while to be pro-active."

To that end, Mr. Neall has scheduled four public meetings this month, inviting civic and community leaders to express concerns about county government. The first is set for 6 p.m. Sept. 17 at Arundel High School.

Mr. Neall said he has also solicited his top staff to come up with plans and initiatives for him to review and, despite the lean budget outlook, expects to announce major new programs within six months.

"I do have ideas, and I will share them with the public," Mr. Neall said. "But the essence of democracy is to find out what people want and need and then decide how to do it. Sometimes, it requires vision to figure out a way to get things done."

Even Mr. Lighthizer, who endorsed Mr. Neall's Democratic opponent in last year's election and now is Governor Schaefer's transportation secretary, believes it is too early to judge his successor.

"It's not fair to evaluate the guy until he's had a year in office," Mr. Lighthizer said. "He's where I was at that stage. There's an awful lot to learn."

Still, much is at stake during the remainder of Mr. Neall's term, and not only for Anne Arundel County. Last year's property tax revolt, the growing clout of Maryland Republicans, Governor Schaefer's waning popularity and the probability that a Democratic-controlled legislature may raise state taxes soon have led many to peg Mr. Neall as a leading candidate for governor in 1994.

Mr. Neall has heard such speculation many times but seems uninterested in the job, at least for now.

"The best thing I can do for my political future is be a superlative county executive," said Mr. Neall, who grades his job performance at a "B" level so far.

"You want to know something? I've never had more fun in my life than doing the job I'm doing right now."

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