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Baltimore Co. budget deal forming Piggyback tax boost stays in the picture


Baltimore County Council members are quietly hammering out a deal with Roger B. Hayden that would cut the executive's proposed budget but still increase the piggyback tax, according to several highly placed sources.

That would leave the county with more revenue coming in than would be slated for spending. The extra money would be used to hire more police and firefighters, and maybe to bolster the county's "rainy day fund," an account that could be used to offset state aid cuts next year.

Council sources said there is a list of cuts that could be made in Mr. Hayden's budget. The cuts are said to total up to $25 million -- almost the amount that would be raised by increasing the piggyback from 50 percent to 55 percent. But no one close to the talks expects the cuts to come out anywhere near that high.

Sources have said, however, that the controversial $7.8 million in the executive's budget for longevity and merit pay increases for county workers would not be among the items slashed.

Like nearly everything else relating to government spending in this topsy-turvy budget year, the council's plan is a sharp departure from usual practice. In the past, the council has only cut the executive's spending proposal to reduce the property tax rate.

This year, however, most council members are worried about the effect of the fiscal crunch on what they consider the most basic of government responsibilities -- police and fire protection.

The county has lost 150 police officers and 90 firefighters through normal retirements and attrition. But even with the proposed income tax increase, there is no money to hire replacements.

Police officers have been ordered to park their patrol cars and walk their beats to save money. And Chief Cornelius J. Behan told the County Council last week that the investigative and crime prevention units have been decimated so the county can keep enough officers on street patrol.

The Fire Department has been similarly hit. The size of crews has been cut on some engines, and emergency medical teams have been cut back. Equipment, such as the marine fire and police rescue units, has been removed from service on weekdays.

Council members are also worried about the implications of the new state budget. Last week, county budget director Fred Homan predicted that the state will face a $300 million shortfall in the budget year that begins July 1, and that state lawmakers might cut aid to local governments again. The county, which lost $27 million in state funds this year, could lose another $10 million to $20 million next fall, Mr. Homan said. And council members are afraid the county's $5.5 million rainy day won't be a sufficient cushion.

Sources said no more than five of the seven council members are involved in the negotiations. The entire council is scheduled to vote formally on a new budget and tax rate at a special meeting May 28.

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