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County budget hearing is tame affair


What a difference a year makes.

Last May, the Baltimore County Council's annual budget hearing drew a crowd of more than 1,300 people who packed Loch Raven High School's large auditorium and spilled into the lobby. A boisterous, sign-waving crowd of angry teachers and parents came to counter an equally enthusiastic though smaller group of tax protesters.

Last night, for the 1993 edition of the budget hearing, about 100 people attended. Thirty-nine of them signed up to speak, compared with more than 100 last year.

"In my nine years on the council, I've never seen this small a crowd," said Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, D-3rd.

"We keep thinking there's some secret we don't know about," Essex Elementary Principal Jean Satterfield said as she looked in bewilderment at the sparse audience.

"People have just lost faith this year," said Cheryl Bost, a teacher at Mars Estates Elementary who was carrying 100 "Yea" and "Boo" signs that the teachers association used for dramatic effect last year. "People have just become so disgusted with government now."

Mr. Ruppersberger said he believed the reason for the low turnout is that "people understand the recession now." He noted that unlike last year, there is no proposed tax increase and no general employee pay raises. "There is not an issue here" to stir passions, he said.

The majority of speakers came to urge the council not to cut the education, recreation and police budgets, which is the usual pattern at the annual hearing. "[County Executive] Roger Hayden's education budget is tantamount to child abuse," said teacher Marty Peters, former teachers' union president. "It hurts kids, it hurts education, it hurts teachers and it creates a pattern of decline."

Several speakers pushed for restoration of $871,000 in local money cut from the mental health budget.

Although Budget Director Fred Homan contends the money was mostly replaced by state aid, several mental health advocates said state aid is targeted by law to specific purposes and cannot replace local money.

The council began its public examination of Mr. Hayden's $1.2 billion budget earlier yesterday with brief question-and-answer sessions covering seven agencies.

The council's scrutiny is limited to the $857 million raised by county taxes and the Maryland piggyback income tax. The rest comes from the federal and state governments.

The hearing at Loch Raven normally serves as a forum for citizens eager to protect their favored departments from further cuts by the seven-member council. The council can only cut the budget, not add to it.

After two years of recession- driven revenue losses and midyear state budget cuts, council members haven't expressed enthusiasm for cutting more. Mr. Hayden hasn't given employees a general pay raise since he took office in 1990 and laid off several hundred employees in February.

Council members last year were so worried about the declining numbers of police and firefighters that they negotiated an agreement for more recruits, rather than cut funds, and approved an increase in the local share of the state income tax from 50 percent to 55 percent to help cover state cuts in local aid.

This spring, Mr. Hayden's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 calls for four police and one fire recruit classes, as well as badly needed fire trucks and ambulances, 4,600 new computers for county schools and 51 new teachers, although the school board had requested 138.

The executive took pains to use his limited funds where they would appear to make a difference, including the money for fire trucks, more than $8 million for leaking school roofs and a 40 percent increase in clasroom supply money.

The council has promised a more sophisticated approach to its deliberations, using a new budget analyst to guide its inquiries along with a series of performance audits of various agencies from the last several years.

The only suggestion on the table is one by Pikesville Councilman Melvin G. Mintz, D-2nd, to raise the piggyback tax to 56 percent and use the additional $5.1 million to lower the property tax 3.5 cents from its current of $2.865 per $100 of assessed value. The council has until June 1 to make cuts and set a new tax rate.

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