By revealing a puzzle piece or two at a time, Anne Arundel County officials have begun to publicly assemble a picture of what the next fiscal year's budget will look like.
They are saying a small tax increase is likely.
They also say cost-of-living increases will not be provided to most county employees and that layoffs have not been ruled out.
Typically, county officials don't reveal much - if anything - about their proposed budget until May 1, when it is released. By then, county budget staffers have reached their revenue estimates for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Although county officials haven't spoken publicly about what specific programs could be targeted for cuts, they have projected how much money will be available to spend. And the financial situation appears bleak, county budget officer John R. Hammond said.
Some union officials have said that County Executive Janet S. Owens, by going public with bits and pieces about the budget, is trying to paint a gloomy picture as officials enter negotiations with employee unions.
Keith W. Wright, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters union, expressed some skepticism yesterday that state cuts could so drastically affect the county budget, as Anne Arundel officials contend.
"If your normal paycheck is $1,000 and you only get $985, what's that going to do to you?" Wright asked.
County officials expect about $10 million in cuts from the state next fiscal year, based on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed budget.
But state aid makes up just a small portion of the county's operating budget, which was $883.5 million this year. Less than 6 percent of the money in this year's budget comes from the state.
The revenue streams that provide nearly three-quarters of the county's spending money - property and income taxes - are expected to produce more money next year than they did this year. That should allow county spending to increase 1.8 percent in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
But that increase, which amounts to $16 million, will not be enough to cover rising expenses, Hammond said in an interview yesterday.
The county is locked in to spend $28.7 million more next year than this year, Hammond said. Those expenses include additional money for debt service, built-in pay increases, higher health insurance costs and pension plan increases. County officials are also looking to provide the school system with an additional $11 million from the operating budget, half of what the Board of Education has requested.
That means the county would need about $40 million more than last year, Hammond said. With only the $16 million in additional money available, the county faces a $23.7 million budget gap that it will have to close.
The county agreed to pay increases and pension plans during good financial times, Hammond said.
But, he added, "Our planning for what we could do was built on [the expectation] that we wouldn't take a hit from the state."
Anne Arundel is in a difficult position.
Home assessments in the third of the county that was surveyed climbed an average of 12.3 percent last year - second highest in the state - but the county can't ride out the tough times by tapping revenues from soaring assessments. That's because a revenue cap that was passed by voters in the early 1990s prohibits the county from realizing huge gains from property tax increases.
The amount of property tax money collected is equal to the tax rate multiplied by the taxable property values.
Excluding new construction, that amount cannot climb each year by more than the consumer price index, which gauges inflation. This year that index will be about 3.3 percent, Hammond said.
Last year's tax rate was set at 95 cents per $100 of taxable property. (Taxable property value is different from assessed value because homestead exemptions limit how much property can be taxed each year.)
There might be room this year under the revenue cap to increase that by a few tenths of a cent, Hammond said. A one-10th of a cent increase would result in a $2.50 increase for the owner of a house with a taxable value of $250,000. That homeowner now pays $2,375 a year.
"Every indication is that if we could do it, we will do it," he said.
But all the projections could change - for the worse.
Of the estimates, the most uncertain is the projected state dollars. Ehrlich's budget relies on the General Assembly allowing slot machines at horse tracks.
Without slots or a tax increase, Ehrlich will need to pare about $395 million more from the budget, and some it could come from aid to counties.