Line forms for shares of bankroll; Balto. County surplus from strong economy reaches $69.4 million ; 'The money's there'; Computers, sidewalks, parks, streets among items on wish lists

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore County is flush with cash -- and there is no shortage of plans for spending it.

Police are asking for high-tech equipment to track drug dealers.

The county computer guru hopes to set up an employee computer training center. And County Council members are fighting for more sidewalks, streets, schools and parks for their districts.

The strong economy has increased county personal income by 5 percent and created an unprecedented bankroll for Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger as he reviews budget requests for the fiscal year that begins July 1, according to an analysis of the county's fiscal health released this month.

That analysis says the economy will pump a record $1.1 billion into the county's general fund this year and provide a $69.4 million surplus that it says Ruppersberger should either spend on one-time projects or return as a tax cut.

While there has been no clamor for a tax cut, county officials say the strong economy means higher expectations from the public about how Ruppersberger and the council spend the money.

"Right now, we're enjoying the benefits of a healthy economy. But people realize that when the economy is good they can ask for more, and they're asking for more," said County Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, the Catonsville Democrat and chairman of the Spending Affordability Committee that issued the report.

Ruppersberger, who has begun reviewing spending requests submitted this month by his department heads, says funding for school construction and repairs remains a top priority for next year.

Fixing up aging schools could carry a $400 million price tag over the next five to eight years.

Budget analysts say the school budget will once again take up about half of the county's operating budget, as it does most years.

Ruppersberger must also consider other requests, including those from community groups and from council members, who have the final say on his budget.

"We're going to be careful with whatever extra funds there are," said Michael H. Davis, Ruppersberger's spokesman. "It doesn't give us as much leeway as people might think."

A lot of the surplus is being generated from taxes on capital gains that are a one-time infusion of cash, Davis said.

The county has to pay for approved salary increases for police and teachers. In addition, when department heads submitted their budget requests, they were told to hold increases to a minimum, he said.

"These are critical months for the budget process because you're right in the middle of the process, with the requests coming in," said Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald P. Hutchinson, who was county executive from 1978 to 1986.

Moxley said his constituents are eager to see the completion of streetscape programs in Catonsville and Arbutus, renovation of Catonsville High School and construction of a recreation center in the old Catonsville Middle School on Bloomsbury Avenue.

"People want to see the tax dollars spent in their communities," Moxley said.

Many of the requests from council members and community groups, if approved, would be funded from the capital budget -- money for larger construction projects that is counted apart from the operating budget's $1.1 billion general fund.

Nevertheless, the surplus in the operating budget created by the healthy economy has prompted numerous requests for various new projects and programs.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat whose district includes the Honeygo community, met with county planners and park officials last week to ask that about 100 acres, scattered among several parcels in the booming Honeygo corridor, be purchased for a network of 5- and 10-acre community parks.

"I'm talking about community parks, maybe a few blocks from these houses, that you could walk to, or walk your dog around," said Gardina. "The money's there. It's just a question of getting the county to move on it."

Meanwhile, requests from Baltimore County's department heads are flowing into the county budget office for an initial review.

The police have requested a $103 million spending plan that includes a $20,800 video camera that can be hidden on a utility pole and controlled from a distance to watch suspected drug activity.

They also want $23,300 for three electronic monitoring devices that will allow investigators to track cars being driven by suspected drug dealers and record the routes they travel and addresses where they stop.

Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman, said the equipment is intended to free up officers who otherwise would be parked on a stakeout near a drug dealer's house or tailing drug dealers in their cars.

Sheriff Anne K. Strasdauskas wants $118,000 to beef up overnight courthouse security; the circuit judges want $70,000 for a family court master to speed divorce cases; and the computer systems chief, Thomas G. Iler, wants an $88,000 computer center for county employees.

Iler said the center would be in the basement of the courthouse, would have space for 10 people and would train workers in the most efficient ways to use the millions of dollars' worth of computers purchased in recent years.

"If people sitting in front of these computers don't know how to get the value out of them, then we haven't invested wisely," he said.

Despite the record surplus in Baltimore County and in other jurisdictions, there seems to be minimal support for tax cuts.

In Anne Arundel County, officials are being pressed to spend much of their $22 million surplus on school renovations.

In Howard County, the $11.8 million surplus is likely to be used to help pay for a $20 million, 800-megahertz emergency radio system and renovations to county facilities.

"It's the same in the county as at the state level: There's no interest in tax cuts. There's an apathy that's set in," said John D. O'Neill of Ruxton, a leader of a countywide tax revolt in the early 1990s and the former president and founder of the Maryland Taxpayers Association.

Harold Lloyd, another longtime Baltimore County tax activist, attributes the lack of support for tax cuts to an economy that has stabilized property tax assessments and given people more cash.

"Because of this strange, robust economy, I think it's just not on people's minds," he said.

But council members also warn that Ruppersberger must avoid creating long-term debt in the budget he submits to them April 14. The spending plan will have trouble winning approval if it calls for many new employees or establishes programs that will cost taxpayers year after year, they say.

"We can't lock ourselves into a lot of new expenses when we aren't sure if the revenues are going to be there a few years down the road," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican who represents the north county Owings Mills corridor.

The same economic analysis that predicts solid tax revenues this month also sounds a warning.

It predicts that future increases in the county general fund will soon begin tapering off, with the $1 billion general fund increasing by only $19 million next year -- compared with the $38 million increase this year.

"I think everybody realizes that the good times we're seeing now aren't going to last forever," said county auditor Brian J. Rowe.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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