County Council OKs slight funds cut


The Baltimore County Council agreed yesterday to cut just $1.1 million from County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s $1.3 billion budget proposal, one of the smallest reductions the council has made in decades.

Though the executive and some members of the council apparently have not abandoned the antagonism that marked their relationship immediately after Smith took office, the councilmen again praised Smith for crafting a lean budget well in line with their common priorities -- schools, public safety and economic development.

The council cut nothing from the $135 million Smith allocated for police or the $570 million he proposed for schools. And even though the county's economic development director said in a hearing that he did not object to more than $800,000 in proposed cuts, council members trimmed just $4,000 from the department's $1.6 million budget.

Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, said Smith's proposal was "a very conservative budget to begin with."

"We penny-pinched everywhere we could and all we could find to cut was one million, one hundred thousand," he said.

Of that, $437,000 of the cuts were the result of an error -- the budget office accidentally double-funded start-up costs for a minilibrary branch in Lansdowne.

The council's trims amount to 0.05 percent of Smith's spending plan.

County Auditor Brian Rowe, who last year questioned Smith's proposed use of savings to fund expenses, praised the parsimony with which the executive crafted this year's plan and recommended few reductions.

"We think the revenues are conservatively stated," Rowe said. "We're well within spending affordability. Taxes are not being increased. We did not take a heavy hand on the budget. We saw no need to."

The property tax rate remains $1.115 per $100 of assessed value, and the income tax is unchanged at 2.83 percent.

For the second year in a row, the council did use the budget cuts to take a political swipe at the executive.

Last winter, some councilmen questioned Smith's decision to hire former Maryland Insurance Commissioner Steven B. Larsen to write a report on flood insurance issues in the wake of Tropical Storm Isabel.

In announcing the report, Smith criticized the current insurance commissioner, Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Republican who is considered a possible county executive candidate in 2006.

At the time, Rowe, McIntire and Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, criticized the expenditure as political posturing.

The report cost $24,548 -- just under the $25,000 threshold at which contracts require approval of the council. Yesterday, the council cut $24,548 from the "professional services" line item in the insurance category.

But in general, said Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, the council's modest trims showed that it and the executive share priorities. Most of the spending increases in this year's budget plan go toward cost of living raises for county workers, which Moxley said are crucial to the county's ability to retain qualified workers.

The executive's initiative to fund a school to help students in foster care and group homes to make the transition to county high schools is of particular interest to councilmen from the west side of the county, whose constituents often raise concerns about the effect of such children on the learning environment, Moxley said.

The council is to formally adopt the budget May 27.

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