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Weeks of wrangling produce budget similar to original proposal


County officials looked more skittish than kids on prom night Thursday as they prepared to adopt the county's $270 million budget for fiscal 1993.

Passage of the budget is usually a routine matter that begins at noon and takes less than a half-hour. This year, the County Council didn't finish until 3:25 p.m.

The 54 votes -- all but one unanimous -- might have been accomplished quickly were it not for 11th-hour changes and frequent speeches from council members interspersed among votes.

Council members were unaware that among the $1.1 million in administration cuts they agreed to earlier in the week was a $6,000 park and recreation program designed to provide physical therapy to disabled seniors. They also had no idea what was included in the $1.1 million they were cutting from the school budget. Before voting, they asked Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin to take them through the cuts line by line.

After learning that they had cut the physical therapy program, the council asked County Executive Charles I. Ecker to take the money instead from the county's contingency fund. Ecker agreed, and at 12:50 p.m., budget Director Raymond S. Wacks and his staff began making handwritten changes on the budget document.

The move to make last-minute changes began just before 11 a.m., as several council members considered voting against the fire tax.

Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, wanted to vote against the tax as a protest over the way it was levied this year. She felt Ecker should have sought input from more people before deciding to use $900,000 of the tax money to support the fire administrator's office. Council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, and C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, agreed.

The county's legal adviser told the three Democrats they could not approve a budget that failed to supply sufficient revenue to cover expenses. The fire tax was approved as proposed.

Despite the $2.2 million cuts and last-minute maneuvering, the budget was adopted virtually as Ecker proposed it in April. Despite the cuts, essential services are maintained, and all county and school employees will get a raise of at least $400.

Cuts in the administration's budget were achieved by shifting money from pay-as-you-go projects to bond funding, reducing the number of professional service contracts, and keeping less money in the insurance reserve fund.

Cuts in the education portion of the budget were obtained by leaving positions vacant, early retirement of employees, hiring new people at lower salaries, and buying fuel futures to save on utility costs.

"The budget is a reasonable one," Farragut said. "The council reached the correct conclusion. This is not the year to raise taxes. I am not sure we will come out of this recession quickly."

Darrel Drown, R-2nd, said he was "extremely happy" the council did not raise taxes. "There were some cutbacks, some sacrifices, but generally everybody is sharing the same pain and gain."

Gray said that while he was "pleased overall" and felt the council "did a fairly decent job," he was nonetheless concerned about what he sees as a shifting emphasis from taxes to user fees. "This budget includes $512,000 in new fees and $612,000 in fee increases," he said. "That's something we're going to have to look at."

Pendergrass said her concerns hinged on broader trends. She said she was pessimistic after reading stories that morning about the nation's trade deficit and lower number of housing starts, both "not good for the economy." She said she was optimistic, however, because of the charitable and civic work undertaken by people in the county.

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