Recession forces cuts Mason pushes for more Colleagues listen, but take no action


To some, Dundalk County Councilman Donald C. Mason's crusade to cut government spending is akin to being a rainmaker during monsoon season.

Three years of recession, with the loss of nearly $90 million in tax revenues, have forced county spending cuts more drastic than anything a lone county councilman could have ever expected to achieve.

But that's not enough to deter Mr. Mason or John D. O'Neill, the anti-tax crusader who serves as the councilman's one-man, $1-a-year brain trust.

This year Mr. Mason presented each of his colleagues with a list of deeper cuts which, he claims, could remove another $30 million from the $1.2 billion spending plan.

And this year, as in the last two, his six council colleagues listened politely, asked questions, and ignored his proposals.

They're more worried now about preserving the county's jobs and services against the ravages of the recession than about finding more things to cut.

They profess genuine personal affection for Mr. Mason, 66, a short, pudgy, bespectacled Bethlehem Steel retiree who led his own dogged campaign against higher property taxes for 10 years before he finally won election.

They like his honesty, his sincerity and his determination, they say.

They're also sympathetic to the personal tragedies -- the deaths of two in-laws two years ago and his brother this month -- that have kept him from some budget sessions.

But they still don't support his cuts.

Mr. Mason proposed, for the sec ond year in a row, raising $13.8 million by selling off the county school bus fleet and contracting for transportation.

The rest would come from adopting most of the potential cuts identified by County Council auditor Stephen L. Kirchner.

Mr. O'Neill, a leader in the 1990 tax-cap movement that helped get Mr. Mason elected, said that, despite the layoff of 290 county workers and elimination of more than 1,000 county jobs, there are still too many county employees.

Mr. Mason's hit list appears too late each year for serious consideration, several members said, and his proposal often aren't backed by enough analysis to make them credible.

"He waits until the last minute," said Towson Councilman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th.

"He expected to be a voice in the wilderness, though."

"The fact that he's here is an accomplishment in itself," Catonsville's Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st, said of Mr. Mason.

She referred to his years as a citizen crusader, when councils routinely brushed off his complaints about taxes with a smile and a wave.

In recognition of the powerful voters' revolt that dumped five of the seven council incumbents from office in 1990 and brought underdog county executive candidate Roger B. Hayden into office, all his colleagues are now careful to publicly praise Mr. Mason's efforts.

"I've gained a lot of respect for him. He raises a lot of legitimate issues," says Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, D-3rd.

But in private, some council members say his laundry list of cuts, usually presented after the council's main review of the budget, is not taken seriously. The cuts are mostly viewed as mathematical possibilities, with little analysis of their impact, or abstract percentages that don't take into account the human impact of budget cuts.

His suggestion about school transportation has gotten some attention. The school system hired a consultant who concluded the county pays about what a private contractor would charge anyway, although Mr. Kirchner, the council budget analyst, charged that that the study was flawed.

This year, Mr. Mason renewed the idea, and even suggested a pilot program to turn a few bus routes over to a private contractor. But his proposal was ignored.

Still, he says, "I'm an optimist. I put a seed in this year. Next year or the following year that step will be taken," he said.

Although the recession may have stolen some of his thunder, he bears no grudge.

"The recession was a big help," he said, because it helped reduce county spending.

His own district was hit by the closing of three county libraries, a senior center and the loss of recreation workers. But he said the pain of higher taxes would be worse for his blue-collar constituents than further budget costs.

Because of his age, he said, he's not subject to the same political pressures that other, younger council members face -- pressures that make them less likely to vote for cuts.

Will he vote to approve this year's budget, even without his cuts?

"I don't know," he said.

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