Beyond the bottom line


Was that Roger B. Hayden pinch-hitting at last week's budget address by the Baltimore County executive in the packed County Council chamber?

It looked like C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger all right, the Democrat who unseated the Republican Mr. Hayden as executive last fall. But the first sound-bite of the Ruppersberger address was vintage Hayden: "The days of unlimited government resources are over and will likely never return."

Also, Mr. Ruppersberger's proposal for fiscal 1996 -- a $1.29 billion budget that includes $917 million in county expenditures, or $19 million more than in the previous year -- seemed as lean as most of the spending plans Mr. Hayden devised during his recession-plagued term. This likeness is by necessity, given that local tax revenues remain as stagnant as they were a few years ago.

Where the similarities end, however, is in the approaches of the two executives. Mr. Ruppersberger takes a big-picture view that shows he's as mindful of the future as his predecessor was oriented to today's bottom line. He has balanced the numbers and tended to the basics. But at the same time, he has reserved leftover funds for essentials such as public education and the police department. In fact, of his requested $19 million increase, $17.2 million -- or 91 percent -- would go to the schools ($13.5 million) and police ($3.7 million.)

Another of his key priorities is the revitalization of the county's aging and rapidly urbanizing communities. Toward that end, the executive has set aside money to patch up 50 alleys and 250 miles of roadway. These amount to a fraction of the pavement in the 612-square-mile jurisdiction, but they constitute a significant first step that will need to be repeated in years to come.

Credit the executive for a spending plan that, despite the county's anemic revenues, envisions good schools, safe streets and attractive communities as not just important ends in themselves but also key economic revitalization tools.

Meanwhile, the County Council members skipped their traditional public responses to the budget address. Later, though, council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina said he wants to cut into education. He wants payback for what he alleges was Superintendent Stuart Berger's bad-faith negotiations over a school system surplus of more than $10 million in health insurance funds. Revenge might be sweet to some council members, but they angrily take an ax to education at the risk of worsening relations with PTAs, the teachers union and other influential groups -- not to mention the county's tenuous hold on middle-class households.

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