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Council OKs $1.44 billion 2008 budget

The Baltimore Sun

Weeks of acrimonious debate over Anne Arundel County's $1.44 billion budget ended with little fanfare yesterday as the County Council unanimously passed the fiscal 2008 spending plan that leaves lawmakers resigned, nonprofit organizations reeling and education leaders riled.

The budget keeps virtually every priority laid out early last month by County Executive John R. Leopold. It includes funding for a negotiated 6 percent raise for teachers; $6 million to buy 30 acres in Lothian from a developer; and $2 million in repairs for the ice rink at Quiet Waters Park.

It still, however, cuts $2.5 million in grants to nonprofits and leaves the school system $70 million short of what the board of education had requested.

"We did the best we could with the money we had," said Councilman Joshua J. Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat.

The $1.22 billion operating and the $219 million capital spending plans take effect July 1. The budget cuts the property tax rate from 91.8 cents to 89.1 cents per $100 of assessed value to counter rising property assessments.

"The budget falls within the framework of fiscal and political reality," Leopold said. "It's a sound, fiscally responsible budget that meets a good number of my priorities."

The budget sets aside $5 million to address health-care costs for retired county workers, a move required by recent accounting changes for local and state governments.

In the budget proposal he unveiled May 1, Leopold also recommended $10 million in administrative cuts and an indefinite continuation of a hiring freeze on nearly 200 positions. He also trimmed $3.17 million in grants to dozens of nonprofits and did not fully fund a 17 percent increase in education spending that Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said was vital to turn the school system "from good to great."

The spending proposals for the nonprofits - which care for the homeless and provide job training for low-income residents and legal aid - and the schools drew the ire of hundreds who attended public meetings, wrote letters and protested outside the Arundel Center.

In response, the council last week restored $5.4 million in school spending and $815,000 in grants. About $2.2 million was reallocated to the education budget for teachers' salaries, $2.5 million was set aside for school planning projects, and $332,000 was designated for studies to renovate or replace West Meade and Pershing Hill elementary schools.

"The end result is: It's closer to what the citizens wanted than when we got it," said Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican.

Still, some nonprofits fear they may have to close their doors, and school officials are bracing for deep cuts.

Maxwell said he is planning to eliminate more than a dozen grant-funded positions, freeze at least 50 classroom instruction positions and forego hiring more psychologists, social workers, security officers or custodians.

Maxwell said he and his executive team are revising a priority list to determine what can stay and what should go, and will present the latest list to the school board at its meeting on Wednesday. The board will officially approve the budget June 20.

"We need to improve communication, so the county executive and the County Council can fully understand the impact of the decisions they make," Maxwell said.

School board vice president Eugene Peterson also talked of making some dire choices.

"I think we're going to have to think about raising the thermostat a couple of degrees higher in the summer, lowering it a couple of degrees cooler in the winter to save on utility costs," Peterson said. "I think we shut down buildings to after-hours events, and tell the county Parks and Recreation Department to go somewhere else for their needs because we don't have enough custodians to keep the buildings clean."

School board member Victor Bernson, a fiscal conservative, said he does not understand why some of his colleagues on the board see the situation as dire.

"In any budget that has ballooned to this size there's got to be room to go back and revisit it," Bernson said. "Not every single dollar spent by a school system is sacrosanct. Programs work, and some don't. You go back, look at what's delivering the bang for the buck, and get rid of the programs that don't."

Leopold said the budget priorities reflects the county's tax-adverse attitude.

"I have said to Dr. Maxwell and to some board members that we have to work within the framework of political and fiscal reality," the county executive said. "I think it would be useful to come to an agreement on that."

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Piney Orchard Democrat, and Cohen considered delaying capital projects to pour more money back into schools, but those efforts were rebuffed.

Dillon chose to focus on the positives, remarking that the budget included funding 111 new teachers, 30 firefighters for the Annapolis Neck Fire Station and a program to install streetlights in high-crime areas.

For all the complaints about cuts to schools and nonprofits, Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, reiterated a warning from Leopold about further reductions in funding for grants and other programs because of the rising health-care costs and projected cuts in state aid.

"If we don't do anything about this, we won't be talking about [cutting] grants, we will be talking about cuts to mainstream, core budget items," Reilly said.

2008 budget

Highlights of the fiscal 2008 Anne Arundel County budget include:

$80.8 million for construction at six schools

$26 million for the all-day kindergarten and pre-K

$27 million for a 6 percent raise for teachers

$6.1 million to purchase 30 acres in Lothian

$2.5 million for school planning studies

$2.5 million in grants for nonprofit agencies

$2.2 million to install safety turf at high schools

$2 million to repair the ice rink at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis

$1.62 million to plan Town Center Boulevard in Odenton

$332,000 to study rebuilding West Meade and Pershing Hill elementary schools

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