County budget approved with ease


With an air of calm and almost no dispute, the Anne Arundel County Council unanimously approved a $1.3 billion budget for fiscal 2006 yesterday.

The decision, formally reached on the day before the budget was due, marked the conclusion of what several council members considered the least-stressful passage of a county spending package in years.

An unanticipated tax-revenue lift from a regionwide real estate boom greased the wheels of a process that began about a month ago, when County Executive Janet S. Owens proposed a budget that addressed dozens of one-time expenses and offered raises to teachers and other county employees without raising the property-tax rate.

"This was probably our best budget month," said Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, who was voting on her seventh county budget. "This was our easiest budget."

Owens and the seven-member council, which can subtract from a county executive's budget but not make additions, had reached agreement last week on the few cuts regarding the $1.1 billion in operating expenses and the $232 million for capital projects.

Among the highlights on the operating side: a 4 percent raise for teachers; a 3 percent raise, along with merit increases, for county employees; and the creation of an affordable-housing program for county employees who make $60,000 to $80,000 a year.

The budget also includes funding for capital projects such as a firehouse for the Annapolis Neck peninsula and air conditioning at Arundel High School.

Anne Arundel County public schools received the largest revenue share, with $509 million for operating expenses and about $60 million for capital construction projects.

"I think we have a good budget," said County Council President Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican. "It represents everything we want to be a part of."

Owens funded these mandates while lowering the property-tax rate by about a penny, to 93.1 cents per $100 of assessed value. But many residents are expected to pay more property tax because of soaring state assessments.

Homeowners are protected from large tax increases because of a law that caps increases in property-tax revenue at 2 percent.

Owens said that budgeting under the constraints of a tax-revenue cap has proved challenging in recent years. But regarding her seventh budget as county executive, she said, "this is the least-contentious budget process I've gone through."

Last year, Owens warned in her budget presentation that services and infrastructure would deteriorate in the next few years if residents and County Council members maintained their longstanding resistance to higher taxes.

But those issues did not come to the fore this year, as the county is expecting for fiscal 2006 to collect more than $80 million for recordation and transfer taxes, which are assessed on property sales and refinancing. In the 1990s, the county garnered less than $40 million a year in such taxes.

The windfall gave Owens and the council a respite from making difficult budget choices, and county residents gave mostly supportive comments at series of hearings on the spending plan.

"The real question is: How long will this [increased revenue from the recordation tax] last?" Owens said. No one knows for sure, and that's why the county executive said she devoted more funding to one-time projects.

"If you have a lot of money, a lot of good things can happen," said C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican, who also cautioned his colleagues that they "shouldn't get complacent" because of the revenue windfall.

The only bit of dissent yesterday came from Bill D. Burlison, an Odenton Democrat, who said he considered voting against an Owens budget for the first time because of his opposition to $1.7 million in funding for charter schools.

Burlison said that the existence of charter schools, which are funded by county taxes but operated independently from Anne Arundel County public schools, in essence creates two separate county school systems whose revenue demands could compromise the tax cap within five years.

"Upon careful analysis, though, a 'no' vote cannot be justified," he said.

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