Council wants to ease cuts

The Baltimore Sun

After weeks of complaints and protests against County Executive John R. Leopold's restrained funding of schools and nonprofits for next year, the County Council is preparing to transfer millions of dollars to restore some money to both.

The amount won't be clear until after tomorrow, when County Auditor Teresa Sutherland presents her recommended cuts in the $1.44 billion budget and Budget Director John Hammond defends the original spending plan.

Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. said the haggling over what projects will be trimmed or postponed will follow in a closed-door session among council members, Sutherland, Leopold and his budget staff.

Dillon said the Republican-majority panel is likely to divert $6 million, mostly for several school capital projects. The remaining few hundred thousand dollars would replenish part of the $3.17 million in grant money for arts organizations and charities that Leopold cut in his fiscal 2008 budget.

That modest boost for the nonprofits could be matched by revenue generated from a proposed increase in the commercial bingo tax, which the council will vote on tomorrow night.

Council members will start offering amendments to move funds later in the week. Some said they might be willing to delay roads and other public works projects, and redirect that money for such school priorities as feasibility studies on the replacement or renovation of Belle Grove, West Meade, Pershing Hill and Annapolis elementary schools, and the Phoenix Center for emotionally impaired children.

"I think you will see some movement around for the schools," Dillon said. "I think the feasibility studies will be funded. But I don't think the capital projects need to be sacrificed."

Leopold said his staff and the council have worked hard to find "common ground."

"This is a collaborative process with the council ... to arrive at consensus, whether it's a legislative or budgetary issue. Similarly with the budget, we are working together to discuss areas of consensus. ... That work is ongoing."

School system officials said funding the feasibility studies and other construction projects now would save money in the long run.

"Our issue from the beginning is that if we delay these projects, not only do you not have the much-needed improvements, the costs go up more quickly," said Bob Mosier, spokesman for the county public schools.

Democratic council members said funding the feasibility studies is crucial to securing state and federal aid for construction.

"Belle Grove is the school most deserving of assistance," said Daryl D. Jones, a Severn Democrat. "It's just in horrible condition. It's got to be a No. 1 priority to receive the feasibility money as well as the reconstruction money."

Although Leopold increased the education budget by 8 percent, that was less than half of the 17 percent the school board and Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell had requested.

Education leaders warned council members this month that Anne Arundel students would face larger classes, longer walks to school and a dearth of extracurricular activities, if they approved the budget as it stood.

Spending for public schools accounts for half of the county's budget.

Even more vocal in their frustration have been supporters of the dozens of arts and charitable organizations whose grants were slashed. Fifty agencies have formed a grassroots alliance that organized letter-writing campaigns and protests after Leopold cut county grant funding from the previous fiscal year's $5 million.

County officials and lawmakers say they will seek to boost funding, but that there is only so much that can be done, given the relatively lean budget and speculation that a state budget deficit next year could lead the General Assembly to slash state aid to the counties.

The county is also facing new expenses in paying for 10 union contracts and infrastructure improvements around Fort Meade.

But the nonprofits could get an unexpected boost in the form of the commercial bingo tax. In a compromise reached May 7, the council approved an amendment to raise bingo jackpots. Under the revised bill, the prize for single-game winners would jump from $500 to $1,200, and the aggregate jackpots would increase from $50,000 to $300,000.

The rising jackpots are expected to spur more business at the county's three bingo halls and maximize revenue generated by raising the tax from 7.5 percent to 10 percent. The county would stand to net at least $600,000 a year, rather than the $300,000 first estimated. Leopold said he has agreed to commit the extra revenue to nonprofits that need county dollars to garner matching grants.

The council can cut, cannot add to, the proposed $1.22 billion operating and $219 million capital spending plans. In previous years, members have typically moved about one-third of 1 percent of the operating budget, Sutherland said.

Last year, in reviewing the $1.37 billion budget, she offered $8.5 million in operating cuts, along with $10 million in capital cuts, excluding water, sewer and other related projects. The council accepted a fraction of those.

Sutherland said she will make fewer cuts this year but did not elaborate. She did say that the council will have less opportunity to readjust the spending plan.

"This is the leanest budget I've seen in 20 years," Sutherland said.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Piney Orchard Democrat, said he would like to pile up all the cuts in non-education spending that Sutherland recommends and direct that toward the schools. "Our most fundamental commitment is to public education," he said.

Dillon said budget changes must be complete by Thursday so that the council can pass a budget by May 31. The next fiscal year starts July 1.

"There's not as much money to play with this time," Dillon said. "Less issues usually make the discussions go quickly."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad