Don't touch our stuff.
That's the message dozens of Baltimore County residents sent to the County Council last night at a largely tranquil public hearing on a proposed $1.79 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year.
At a time when county coffers are brimming with a surplus expected to reach $85 million, County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger found something for everybody in the budget proposal he unveiled earlier this month. The plan includes money for everything from comfortable chairs for the lobbies of senior citizen centers to classroom listening devices for special-needs students to pay raises for teachers.
Many of the 46 speakers at Loch Raven High School asked the council to leave their favorite projects untouched.
"We've had the same furniture for the past 18 years," said Dorothy Cates, a frequent user of the Essex Senior Center who supported a proposed $225,000 for sofas, chairs and tables.
Anne Dorsey said her hearing-impaired daughter, Jada, 2, would benefit from new listening devices contained in the school's special-education budget.
"If we at least make an attempt to level the playing field, there is no obstacle they can't overcome," Dorsey said.
It was unclear if speakers had anything to worry about. By law, the council can only trim the executive's proposed budget. With little public clamor for a tax reduction, no councilman has yet expressed interest in making cuts.
Ruppersberger has proposed a heavy investment in public education for the fiscal year, which will begin July 1. Teachers would receive salary increases averaging 5.7 percent, and principals would get a 9 percent pay raise over two years. The county would add $90 million in construction funds to the $42 million in state funds approved by the General Assembly this year for renovations and repairs to the county's 112 elementary schools.
The spending plan includes $21.7 million for neighborhood renewal projects, most of which would be spent in Essex-Middle River, Randallstown and Dundalk -- areas where the county recently obtained the right to condemn land for economic development. Several speakers lashed out against the revitalization plans.
Overall, the county's budget would rise to $1.79 billion from $1.69 billion. The general fund, which pays for most government services, would increase from $1.15 billion to $1.21 billion.
The spending increase would be funded without a rise in property or piggyback tax rates. Instead, a healthy economy has led to rising property values and higher incomes so the county will collect more money without changing the tax rate.
The council has set a series of hearings to examine the spending plan in depth. A final vote is tentatively planned May 26.