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Spartan budget reflects changing times, Neall says


County Executive Robert R. Neall's $634 million budget represents an end and a beginning.

Ended, he says, are the days when government could be all things to all people, respond to every request for help and serve as great provider.

Beginning now, he says, government will provide basic services. Every single worker will have to justify his job.

Government, he said, has just grown too large, too fast.

"I believe we find ourselves in this situation because for too long, government has listened to the loudest voices and postponed painful decisions [about what programs to cut]," Neall told the County Council on Friday.

This year, the painful decision is slashing 132 positions -- both filled and vacant -- from the budget. Eighty-eight file clerks, secretaries, blue-collar workers, administrators and other county workers will lose their jobs June 30.

"It's a crying shame, we did a lot of good work here," said George Surgeon, 68, who will be losing his job after 14 years as director of the Careers Center when it closes June 30 as part of the budget cuts.

Most significant, Neall says the job cuts are a harbinger of things to come. This year's cuts represent only 3 percent of the work force, and Neall says he intends to reduce the county work force by 10 percent -- roughly 400 jobs -- over the next three years.

Neall granted the biggest spending increases to departments that provide what he sees as basic county needs.

Education officials anticipate 2,660 more students in the county schools next year, so Neall's budget anticipates a $14 million, or 4.4 percent, increase in education funding to hire 80 regular and 13 special-education teachers to handle them.

Criminal justice officials anticipate 60 more inmates each day next year at the county detention center. The detention center will get an 18 percent increase in spending and 24 of 35 new county positions to operate a 200-bed addition scheduled to open next month.

Also, Neall's capital budget calls for $885,000 to build a second 200-bed addition to the existing Jennifer Road facility and planning for a 650-bed detention center at a controversial site on Ordnance Road in Glen Burnie.

The Sheriff's Office gets a 19.3 percent increase to handle an increasing demand for Circuit Court security.

But Neall plans to privatize two duties historically assigned to the sheriff -- District Court security and service of domestic relations process.

He also plans to privatize several other government functions, including the Office of Manpower, a federally funded job-training agency. The 34 manpower employees whose jobs are being eliminated could be rehired by the private firm, Neall said.

Though he was elected on his pledge to make government run more efficiently, Neall's current views on privatization and downsizing of county government were sharpened by this year's budget crisis. A former state delegate, he was hit with more than $20 million in state cuts, and the experience left him with a bitter aftertaste.

Anticipating further cuts in state aid, he has set aside $10 million in an unprecedented rainy day fund to offset them. The money could only be used for emergencies, such as the state aid reductions, and with council approval.

Louise Hayman, Neall's press secretary, said the rainy day fund is his "A-No. 1 top priority."

Council members, who must approve the fund, say they support it.

They are not comfortable, however, with firing 88 workers.

"We're concerned about that," said Councilman Carl G. "Dutch" Holland, a Pasadena Republican. "With this economy being what it is, to put people out of work seems to be a step backward."

The council will hold budget hearings throughout the month. It must approve the spending plan by May 29, before the fiscal year starts July 1.

The budget represents a 6 percent increase in spending over the current $598 million budget, which was reduced at midyear from $616.5 million as a result of the state cuts.

Longevity and merit raises for county workers and a $10 million rainy day fund account for $21 million of the $36 million increase.

The plan keeps the state piggyback income tax rate at 50 percent and the property tax rate at $2.46 per $100. But property owners will still be paying an average of $100 more in taxes because of increased assessments. The average tax bill for the owner of a $137,000 house is expected to go up from $1,200 this year to $1,350, said budget officer Steven E. Welkos.

Though a local property tax credit would help the neediest homeowners, property taxes still would account for 42 percent of budget revenues, 3 percent more than last year. That fact is sure to incur the wrath of property tax activists, who want the tax burden reduced.

An increase in the hotel/motel tax, from 6 percent to 7 percent, would net $540,000 to be used for tourism promotion. And citizens who use county government services would pay more through a wide range of fee increases for everything from senior centers to trade licenses to parade permits.

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