Trade-offs in Arundel


The marching orders from Anne Arundel County voters have been clear and distinct: no new taxes, maintain public school classroom sizes, trim and tuck government as needed. With a few notable exceptions, County Executive Robert R. Neall's new spending plan, announced Friday, hews to this mandate.

He has avoided turning to the option of raising the piggyback tax, yet he found enough money to hire 93 new teachers. Police and fire staffing levels remain constant. For the first time in two years, county employees will be taking home fatter paychecks; this budget restores last fall's 3 percent wage concession and provides for merit and longevity increases.

But the salutary features of this budget -- and there are many -- will no doubt be obscured by its harder-to-take elements -- 79 fired government workers and a $10 million "rainy day" fund. The former is part of a bureaucratic downsizing pre-dating the current budget; the latter a buffer against shenanigans in state aid later this year. Both are aimed at fiscal preservation, but are unlikely to be viewed in that context.

Organized labor will undoubtedly balk at squirreling away $10 million while doling out pink slips. Friends of the schools will argue that the money should go toward the $17 million the county executive cut from the proposed education budget. Tax rebels will assert that the money should go toward lowering the property tax rate. And so on. But even the strongest of these arguments -- that part of the money should offset layoffs -- fails in the face of stark reality.

What Mr. Neall is proposing, plain and simple, is a bunker budget capable of holding up against the fiscal gyrations of a still unsteady economy. He and other county leaders suspect, for good reason, that the state is once again steaming ahead under chimerical revenue projections.

Mr. Neall is counting on the $10 million in his "rainy day" fund as pin money against bad news from Annapolis later this year. The money won't flow from an existing revenue stream, but a totally new revenue source as Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. starts operating its second coal-fired unit at Brandon Shores. Granted, $10 million -- a quarter of what Anne Arundel lost in state aid in fiscal 1992 -- will be precious little in the face of a real fiscal crisis. But it is considerably better than socking away nothing at all.

What Mr. Neall proposes, while not painless, is a sound and equitable allocation of funds. It's not a crowd-pleaser, but these are not crowd-pleasing times. He has done a solid job in meeting Arundel's priorities in economically precarious times.

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