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Safety, education top list for increases in operating budget


Public safety and education account for most of the increases in the $328 million operating budget county department heads are seeking for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The requests, which have not yet been approved by County Executive Charles I. Ecker, bring the budget up 4 percent, or $12.4 million, over the operating budget approved a year ago.

But the budget could grow by several million dollars when salary increases from the Board of Education are added, setting the stage for a battle when Mr. Ecker sends his fiscal 1996 budget to the County Council late next month.

The departmental requests include:

* $387,630 for 15 new police officers who will start Jan. 1, and $619,710 for 20 officers added in the current fiscal year. The new hires would increase the force to 329 officers. The department also wants funding for 26 new vehicles.

* $382,120 for 24 additional fire department paramedics.

* $16,000 to pay half the cost for an inmate services coordinator in the corrections department.

In addition, the school system is looking for a $6.8 million increase. Part would pay for 183 school administrators, teachers and support personnel needed to staff a new middle school and two new high schools.

The increase also would be used to pay increased travel costs for sports tournaments, academic monitoring to improve the performance of black students, and an $8-a-day pay raise for substitute teachers. Substitutes are paid $57 a day now.

The Board of Education request accounts for more than half the new dollars sought for the coming fiscal year and is expected to go higher because it does not include salary increases.

Those increases, which are now being negotiated, could swell the school board's $169.2 million request by as much as $8 million.

If so, board members, the county executive and the County Council are expected to wage a nasty budget battle. Mr. Ecker has already said he will not raise taxes and will limit the school system increase to between $6 million and $10 million.

A majority of County Council members don't want to raise taxes either. The best the school board could hope for is to have the council restore most of what the executive cuts from its budget.

However, a group of financial advisers has told the executive and the county not to expect more than $324 million in revenues in the next fiscal year. The projection may increase slightly by the time Mr. Ecker sends his budget proposal to the council late next month, but is still expected to fall short of the amount department heads are seeking.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ecker is warning department heads and the public to expect further cuts.

"These spending requests do not reflect my final budget proposal," he said in an open letter to county residents advertising a public hearing on the budget requests Thursday night.

"There are still tough choices to make," Mr. Ecker said in his letter. "What we know for sure is that the '90s will be a decade of reduced increases in revenues and a decade of limited budgets."

Mr. Ecker appears to expect a budget fight with the school board.

"Your county government, excluding the Board of Education, is spending 6 percent less today" than four years ago, he said in the letter. "My goal is to maintain our quality of life with continued common sense solutions to fiscal demands."

Mr. Ecker is expected to present his budget to the County Council April 17.

After public hearings, the council will refine the budget and is expected to adopt it May 19.

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