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Council approves budget Property tax rate remains the same

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A divided Howard County Council approved a budget yesterday that includes some additional money for the school system and keeps the property tax rate at the same level as last year.

Although the bottom lines on the $289 million operating budget and $82 million capital budget are the same as those proposed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker, the council took $870,000 from the noneducation portion of the operating budget and gave it to the Board of Education.

Despite the addition, the Board of Education received $4.4 million less than it sought. Mr. Ecker refused to fund the $4.4 million the board sought for salary increases in an amended request.

He and the two Republicans on the council say school system employees have already gotten more than their fair share of raises. In accordance with their contract, most school system employees will receive a 2.5 percent raise on June 30 and a 3 percent raise the next day, the start of the new fiscal year.

Nonschool system employees will receive a 1 percent raise on the anniversary of their employment. They could also receive a 3 percent raise Jan. 1 if local income tax revenue from the current fiscal year increases by 10 percent over last year.

The school board says it will honor the negotiated raises and cut elsewhere. Council Republicans wanted to avert that possibility by determining how much money the school board could spend on each of its budget categories. But the three Democrats overruled them.

The school board cut only $2,500 from administration while reducing instructional funding by $1 million, said Councilman Darrel Drown, a 2nd District Republican and a former budget officer with the school system. "They think administration is extremely important. I think it isn't."

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, said some people think he is anti-education but "it's just the other way around." Mr. Feaga said that he is concerned that other needs of the county may overpower the education budget in future years.

"The [school system] pie is big again," he said, with the school system getting 56 percent of the operating budget. "We need to learn to spend our dollars a little better."

Both Republicans voted against adoption of the budget.

Council is responsible

Democrats said the school board should have the freedom to determine how to spend its money. "They are elected officials and should have the responsibility and privilege of setting [budget] categories," said Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, a 1st District Democrat.

Mr. Feaga argued that it is the council that is responsible to the taxpayers for how the money is spent. He said he is concerned that police officers are using antiquated vehicles and that the county is neglecting its roads to fund what he perceives as a bloated Board of Education budget.

Mr. Ecker complied with a council request to add $100,000 to the community college budget and cut from other programs such as road resurfacing. He had sought to limit the road resurfacing cuts to $450,000, but the council, again in a split vote, took $600,000 and used the money for educational purposes.

Apart from educational spending, the operating budget for fiscal 1994 includes money for additional police officers and a new police substation, expanded recycling, two new libraries, an addition to the county detention center, and health department testing of residential wells near contaminated county landfills.

The capital budget includes money to complete construction of a western high school and northeastern middle school, and for renovations to an Ellicott City elementary school.

The property tax rate will be $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, the same as the current rate.

But because of increases in assessments, property owners will be be paying more. The owner of a $200,000 house, for example, will pay property taxes of $2,176, an increase of $104.

"On balance, I'm very pleased with the budget," Ms. Pendergrass said. She said she is especially pleased that the county will be filling 40 police slots, "which we really need."

Potential cuts

School board Chairman Dana F. Hanna said that the fact that the approved budget is $4.5 million less than the board requested "is going to have some effect, obviously," and that the board will have "to look long and hard" to determine what cuts it will make.

Mr. Hanna expects the board to makes those reductions from a list of potential cuts it had considered earlier. Among those are a one-year moratorium on new textbooks, elimination of interscholastic golf and gymnastics, and fewer instructors in the teacher pool. The cuts could mean earlier starting times for classes and increased walking distances for students because of shortened bus routes.

Mr. Hanna said he hopes the situation will be eased somewhat by Mr. Ecker's pledge to give $2.1 million to the school system in January if 1993 income tax revenue is 10 percent greater than the previous year.

The Board of Education will be looking to choose its cuts, Mr. Hanna said, to allow the possibility that some items could be restored midyear. His preference, he said, is to cut the transportation portion of the school budget, because he believes "that will have the least impact on programs and the classroom."

Mr. Hanna said he agrees with school board member Deborah D. Kendig that the school system is entering a new phase in which salary, materials and program improvements compete for limited dollars.

Impact on classroom

"People say that whatever we do, don't let it affect the classroom," Mr. Hanna said. "I don't know what doesn't affect tTC the classroom. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to think that employee morale [as a result of salary negotiations] doesn't affect it."

In other action yesterday, the council voted 3-to-2 to change the job classification of its legislative assistants from appointees to career employees and raise the status of the employees one pay level.

The legislation was opposed by council Republicans who said it could force future councils to have assistants not of their own choosing. Current employees can choose whether to apply for career status or remain as appointees.

The bill also changed the status of the five bureau chiefs in the department of public works, making them appointees rather than career employees. The bill will not apply to the present bureau chiefs.

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