Smith offering 'very lean' budget to County Council

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is expected to present a budget today to county lawmakers that leaves them little to trim.

Cost-of-living pay raises for county workers and anything else considered not essential to the daily functions of local government have already been left out of the spending plan, according to officials familiar with the final draft.

The executive's budget is not expected to require a property tax increase or to raise fees.

Smith's budget is expected to come within a few hundred dollars of the county Spending Affordability Committee's recommended $1.547 billion general fund budget for the 2009 fiscal year, which begins in July. That figure is about 4.5 percent more than the current budget.

Smith is required by binding arbitration rules to include a $4 million cost-of-living raise for some police officers, but council members are not required to approve the raises. Administration officials say the executive will make the necessary cuts if the council wants to keep the raises for police.

While declining to elaborate on specifics, Smith said yesterday, "This is a very lean budget. We're not funding new initiatives."

The modest spending plan is a reflection of state and national budget woes, stemming in part from the housing market slump, officials have said.

An arbitrator found that police officers with more than nine years of experience should receive a 4 percent cost-of-living raise.

Whether such a move would be prudent has been the source of debate in recent weeks.

Last month, a fact-finder determined that the county could afford to give raises to some employees, including teachers. But a five-member arbitration panel recommended that the county not offer any county employees cost-of-living salary increases.

Smith's budget is expected to include step - or longevity - increases.

County officials have estimated that giving across-the-board raises to all county employees would add $42 million to the budget and force the county to exceed affordability limits - a shortfall that would require about a 7 percent property tax increase.

Members of the county teachers union have been conducting work-to-rule actions to protest the lack of across-the-board raises in the budget sent to Smith by the school board.

Last year, the county executive included cost-of-living salary increases for county workers in the budget.

The County Council can delete items - but not add to - the final spending plan.

The power of the eraser might seem more important than in prior years, in part because Smith, now in his second term, cannot run for county executive again because of term limits. Several council members have expressed interest in running for the office.

A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held at 7 p.m. April 29 in the council chambers in Towson.

The council will review the planning, economic development, permits and development management departments' budgets in a session beginning at 2 p.m. May 5. The parks, library, sheriff and capital budgets will be discussed by the council beginning at 1:30 p.m. May 8. The police, fire and public works budgets will be reviewed by council members beginning at 2:45 p.m. May 13.

The council is scheduled to consider the public school and community college budgets at 2 p.m. May 15.

A final vote is scheduled for May 22.

An article in yesterday's editions on the Baltimore County budget incorrectly described a fact-finder's recommendations on pay raises for some employees. The employees covered by the report did not include teachers.THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR
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