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GOP offers budget choice

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Proposing selective cuts as an alternative to the tax increase in County Executive James N. Robey's spending plan, Howard's two Republican councilmen have offered their own budget, prompting a storm of partisan bickering.

Councilmen Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon proposed an operating budget for the coming fiscal year that is $24.4 million less than the Democratic county executive proposed, but $23.9 million more than the current budget.

The Republicans' "Living Within Our Means" plan, announced at a news conference Friday, would freeze county salaries with one exception: "First-responders" - police officers on the beat and firefighters - would get 4 percent raises and step increases.

Other changes include cutting more than $5 million from Robey's proposal for the public schools' operating budget; eliminating the police aviation unit and taking $550,000 from the library system. On the capital-budget side, it would defer plans to build a public safety training center.

Robey angrily called the plan "irresponsible," prompting Merdon to level the same accusation about the county executive's proposal.

"I don't think the majority of Howard County residents are looking for cheap government, they're looking for good government," Robey said. Questioning some of the two men's numbers and assumptions, he added: "This is purely partisan politics. ... It's misinformation."

Merdon said any inaccurate numbers are the administration's fault because he and Kittleman relied on statistics from the county budget department.

He said he believes county residents cannot afford the proposed local income tax increase - raising the rate from 2.45 percent to the legal limit of 3.2 percent "in the worst economic times possible."

"We believe it is a very reasonable budget," said Merdon, who promised to provide specific numbers at a budget work session Tuesday. "It does have some pain in it; we recognize that. But in a difficult economy, that's what you have to expect. ... It's still an increase from '03."

Their capital budget - which asks for $68.7 million in new bonds - includes money to keep the 12th high school on schedule for a 2005 opening. The council is expected to vote Friday on both budgets for the 2004 fiscal year, which starts in July.

The three Democrats on the five-member council - only one of whom has publicly favored the tax increase - say there is no way they are voting for the alternative budget plan.

"I am absolutely outraged and incensed about this," said Councilman David A. Rakes of east Columbia. "They've simply launched this pre-emptive strike to undermine the whole process."

"It's more of a press release than a budget," said Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, taking a dig at the lack of line-item information and the Republicans' decision to release the plan at a news conference.

Said Councilman Ken Ulman of west Columbia: "I as much as anyone don't relish paying more money, but the county executive's budget is a quality-of-life budget. This is a pandering-to-greed budget."

Steven H. Adler, who promised not to raise taxes when he ran unsuccessfully against Robey in November, was among the more than two dozen from the GOP who turned out Friday to applaud the Merdon-Kittleman plan. "They have showed leadership and courage in a difficult economy," he said.

Targets of the Republicans' belt-tightening plans were not happy.

"We're already desperate for money," said Sandra H. French, chairman of the school board, which originally asked the county for $330.6 million toward the operating budget. "I don't know how we can survive on $305 million. ... We'd have to lay people off."

Robey proposed giving the school system $310.3 million and offered the potential of $5.5 million more. The Republicans say their plan doesn't specifically freeze teachers' wages - school officials decide how to use the funds they get - but the Democrats countered the cut would make raises impossible.

Valerie J. Gross, the library system's director, said cutting $550,000 from her budget "would be devastating." She said the county libraries spend $340,000 on videos, books on tape, digital video discs and compact discs, so the difference would have to be made up by cutting book purchases.

"We are staffed to serve a million customers. Nearly 2 million customers are now visiting the library," she added.

"We had to decide," Merdon countered. "Do we cut the latest James Taylor CD, or do we provide raises for our police officers?"

Sun staff writer Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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