Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III unveiled his first budget proposal yesterday -- a $1.3 billion spending plan that holds the line on property taxes and contains no general pay raise for government workers.
The budget was met with widespread praise, from County Council members who will review and vote on it and even from union leaders whose members -- while seeming assured of no layoffs -- were deprived of across-the-board raises for the fourth time in six years.
Mr. Ruppersberger, a Democrat, proposed a $19 million increase in spending over Republican Roger B. Hayden's last budget, with most of that money being used to put more teachers into the schools and police officers on the streets.
School officials who had requested $36 million more for education tried to look on the bright side of the Ruppersberger operating budget and its $13.5 million increase -- providing for 265 more classroom teachers and 188 other aides and instructors in county schools.
Additional money was in the capital budget for new and improved schools and building maintenance.
"The county executive's done what he can," said school board president Paul S. Cunningham. "I'm disappointed that the school system has so much in the way of needs, but that's not Dutch's fault."
School Superintendent Stuart Berger said he was pleased with increases for classrooms and for school construction. The budget calls for $5 million more for classroom equipment and supplies, and money for 24 technology labs and to maintain a ratio of 10 students per computer.
Another $3.7 million will be used to hire 33 new police officers and pay 36 others hired this year with federal crime bill money. The remainder of the increase will go into rebuilding alleys and resurfacing roadways in older neighborhoods.
The Ruppersberger budget amounts to a 2.1 percent increase for fiscal year 1996, which begins July 1. It is half of the ceiling on increased spending proposed by the council's Spending Affordability Committee.
In contrast, Mr. Hayden's last budget came close to the council's 4.8 percent limit on spending increases -- chiefly because he gave workers a 4 percent pay raise.
Nonetheless, Mr. Ruppersberger received spontaneous applause from employees as he answered questions after his speech to the County Council. "I am not Roger Hayden," he declared, responding to a comment comparing him to his predecessor.
Labor leaders said the budget was what they expected.
"My group is going to make out all right," said Edward M. Pedrick Jr., president of Local 921 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Mr. Pedrick's blue collar workers have been spared layoffs in the recently-announced reorganization of county departments.
"No surprises," was the reaction of both L. Timothy Caslin, the police union president, and Derek Propalis, president of the Federation of Public Employees, a new white collar labor group.
"It sounds good, but I have to check on it," said John D. O'Neill, one of the county's most vocal tax protesters.
The council may cut but not add to the executive's proposal.
With a budget already viewed as lean, and the strong chance of state and federal budget cuts that will cost the county next year, council members said they don't plan to lower the property tax rate, even if they find places where cuts could be made.
Any savings, they said, would go into the $29 million rainy day fund.
Some cuts are likely, especially in school administration, said Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat. He said he was angry about the way Superintendent Berger settled a dispute with the county administration over control of school health insurance surpluses that could be $16 million by July 1.
The deal, approved by the school board late Tuesday in an executive session after its regular meeting, would give the county government $7.5 million of the surplus and allow the board to keep $4 million -- contingent on council approval.
The rest would be used to settle accounts with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, said Virginia W. Barnhart, deputy county attorney.
"Mr. Berger did not resolve that dispute until midnight last night," Mr. Gardina said. "That is a disgrace. "He wouldn't cooperate. There will be significant cuts coming out of school administration budgets."
4 Dr. Berger called the comments "a silly threat."
"Threatening us does nothing to build the school system," he said.
Administration sources said Dr. Berger had raised objections repeatedly on several points over the last several days and as late as Tuesday night, despite having agreed tentatively to a settlement last week.
After Mr. Ruppersberger's speech, council members praised his budget and said they do not want to cut the property tax rate of $2.855 per $100 of assessed value.
The reluctance was based on the executive's warning that a state income tax cut promised for next year likely will cost the county at least $11 million, and federal budget cuts as part of the Republican Contract with America could cut revenues even more.
"Obviously, it's a budget like those of the last four years," said Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican. "He hits all the right pointers though."
"I thought it was excellent," said Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, a Dundalk Democrat.
"By any standard, it's frugal," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat.
However, Mr. Bartenfelder predicted some fine tuning would be done by the council.
Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat, called the budget "conservative, yet conscientious." He said he saw no benefit to cutting a penny off the property tax rate -- a favorite tactic of his predecessor, Melvin G. Mintz.
Both Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, and T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, liked the budget in terms of what it does for their districts, mainly with school construction.
School Board President Cunningham spoke favorably of capital budget projects that include a replacement school for Edgemere Elementary, a new elementary in Catonsville, a new middle school for White Marsh, planning money for Painters Mill Elementary in Owings Mills, additions to Perry Hall High and Winfield, Woodmoor, Red House Run and Owings Mills elementaries and a new gymnasium for the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science.
There also is money to renovate Towson High, to plan renovations at Catonsville High and to build an addition to Catonsville Middle, and $15 million for maintenance.
The $149.1 million capital budget also provides $11.5 million for road repairs, and money over several years for eight ambulance "medic units," two fire engines and a ladder truck, a new Pikesville fire station, 50 public works dump trucks and a computerized voting system.
It allocates $500,000 for a "sunny day fund" to attract new businesses.
The county administration put $250,000 in the operating budget to hire a consultant for Mr. Ruppersberger's gain-sharing incentive proposal to devise a system for rewarding efficiency among employees.
Budget officials noted that property tax bills have remained nearly constant over 20 years when adjusted for inflation.
The average tax bill necessary to fund the Ruppersberger spending plan would be $1,326 for a house worth $116,000 -- a $35 increase due to rising assessments.
The council scheduled its public budget hearing for 7 p.m. May 2 at Loch Raven High School, 1212 Cowpens Ave.
It plans to formally adopt the budget on May 26.