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Farragut calls for shared budget cut from Ecker, schools


County Council Chairman Paul R. Farragut sent shivers through the administration and the Board of Education last week by calling for budget cuts of $2.2 million.

Farragut, D-4th, directed the school board to give him its suggestions for cutting $1.1 million from its request. He said the council would look to cut an equal amount from non-educational expenses.

With the exception of the education portion of the budget, the council can only accept or cut what the county executive proposes.

The school board has asked the council to approve an operating budget for fiscal 1993 of $141.6 million. County Executive Charles I. Ecker cut that request by $2.1 million.

To restore the $2.1 million, the council can only cut an equal amount from the non-education portion of the budget or raise taxes.

C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, wants to raise taxes. He sponsored a resolution that would increase the county's piggyback tax -- the percentage of state income taxes collected for local use -- from 50 percent to 52 percent.

Farragut prefers a budget cut. Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, suggested the twin cuts in Thursday's work session with the school board.

"I'm looking at a little different solution," Pendergrass said following attempts by Farragut and Darrel Drown, R-2nd, to find cuts the board would agree to. "I'm hoping to find $1.1 million in the administrative side," she said, "and I'm hoping you could find $1.1 million and we wouldn't have to have a tax increase."

"My thoughts are very similar," Farragut said.

Farragut and Drown looked at everything from carpets to personnel to health benefit reserves as possible cuts. School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and the board defended each item.

"We have eliminated cosmetic-type repairs [from the budget request]," Hickey said.

Farragut, who accompanied Hickey on a tour of three schools Tuesday, was not so sure. He questioned the carpet expense, saying he didn't see any serious carpet problems on the tour. Hickey said worn carpets create potential hazards.

"It seems like we're damned if we do [fix things] and damned if we don't," board Chairwoman Deborah D. Kendig said.

Board members said cuts imposed last year have already lessened the quality of education here and that to cut again this year will reduce the quality even further.

Board member Susan J. Cook objected to a suggestion that some supervisory and administrative personnel could be cut.

"I will not put our teachers out to dry," Cook said. "Cutting administrators is cutting their lifeline."

Farragut directed the board to come up with the least-offensive cuts totaling $1.1 million.

Following the work session, Farragut met privately with Ecker to suggest that Ecker reduce his operating budget $1.1 million by issuing bonds for that amount to pay for needed public works projects.

Ecker told Farragut in a letter copied to all council members Friday that it would be a false economy to issue bonds for the projects. "It is a mistake we will pay for for 20 years," he said.

Ecker said he did not think the county government portion of the budget could be trimmed to provide the money the school system wants without laying off people.

"However, I will reduce our budget by $500,000 without laying off any individuals if the council only increases my proposed education budget by $500,000," he said.

The council will hold a public hearing on the piggyback proposal tomorrow night and is scheduled to hold its final work session on the budget Tuesday night.

The council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 21. If council members cannot agree on a budget and set the tax rate by June 1, Ecker's $270 million proposal will be enacted along with his proposed property tax rate of $2.59 per $100 of assessed value. The rate is unchanged from last year.

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