'Caution' in budget proposal


Blaming the wobbly economy, County Executive Janet S. Owens presented a $858 million proposed operating budget yesterday that she repeatedly described as cautious.

She is imposing a "selective" hiring freeze in county government, wants the Fire Department to live essentially without an increase next year and offers the school board less than half of the new money it seeks.

Yet Owens stressed that this is no "doom and gloom" scenario. She proposes sending schools $18.5 million more than they got this year, rules out a tax increase and wants to give nonunion county employees a 3.75 percent pay raise - their biggest since Owens was elected in 1998.

This is only the beginning of a monthlong process. Already, members of the County Council are talking about restoring $1 million to the fire budget before finalizing the budget late this month. And while members did not ask Owens for much, some are disappointed that their pet projects are not in next year's spending plan.

Despite the usual smiles and handshakes, a grim tone was evident yesterday. Even the public reception had symbolic undertones: While last year's spread was replete with sandwiches and fancy desserts, this year's had coffee and cookies - a simple approach Owens called "more fitting."

"Now the economic winds are shifting and inspire a distrust for the coming year," she told a crowd packed into the council chamber. "Even though this county boasts one of the strongest economies in the state, it is time for caution."

Under Owens' plan, the operating budget would grow by 3.6 percent to $858 million. She also proposes spending $197 million on roads and other capital projects, a drop of 16.5 percent.

In forgoing a 1.8-cent increase in the property tax rate allowed under the county's voter-approved revenue limit, Owens passed up the chance to raise about $6.8 million that could be spent on programs.

She listed several reasons, including last year's tax rate increase, recent state assessments that raised the values of many properties and the burden higher taxes put on elderly people living on fixed incomes. Most important, she said, "these are uncertain times with little public appetite for more taxes."

That uncertainty has prompted her to declare an immediate hiring freeze. Only she and top officials can approve exceptions for jobs deemed critical. Though she proposes adding two new staff members in her office, Owens said those would "probably be the last filled."

Owens, a Democrat, has not detailed her concerns about the economy. But Councilman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat, shares her view. At the peak of the 1990s economic boom, the county took in $25 million a year from capital gains taxes, he said; normally, it's $7 million.

Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican, said the county is "not under a crunch" and suggested Owens was needlessly squeezing the Fire Department.

"You can't cut the program [that's] for protecting people's property and lives," he said.

Klocko, Klosterman and several of their colleagues predicted the council would try to add $1 million to the Fire Department budget. Although the council can only add spending for schools, a supplemental budget provides a ready loophole.

Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds said Owens first asked him to trim $2.7 million from his budget request, then told him to pare $1 million more. That left his department with essentially no increase - other than money needed to pay for a generous contract for firefighters - and no choice but to live with lower staffing come July.

"Given our economic situation in the county, what they did was as fair as could be expected," he said. But he added, "I'm hoping in some way, shape or form they'll be able to find that $1 million so we can get back to level staffing."

Some budget highlights:

Funds for more teacher positions, $2.6 million for computers and technicians and $15 million to repair aging schools - but no money for 19 reading teachers meant to support a new middle school reading program.

$9 million for road repairs.

$3 million for agricultural preservation and a promise to leverage state money to expand the Jug Bay wetlands preserve.

Sound barriers along U.S. 50 between the Severn River bridge and Bestgate Road exit.

A pledge to start building a regional library in Odenton, even as the county completes a smaller library in Crofton.

Owens also made a point of mentioning programs for the elderly and her request for two wheelchair vans. She also made a vague call for legislation to "protect" seniors from future tax increases.

"That's long overdue," said Albert Johnston, treasurer of the Greater Severna Park Council.

During a briefing with reporters before her speech, Owens said the big loser in her budget is the school system, although schools would get 60 percent of new dollars in the county budget.

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