Tough times, tight budget

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz finished listening to the county executive discuss his proposed $2.58 billion operating budget yesterday and said, "It's not a happy moment."

The proposal doesn't require increases in taxes or fees, but it requires council members to decide whether to keep raises for some police officers called for in binding arbitration, or to cut the $4 million budgeted for it.

"That's the toughest part of this whole package," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, an Overlea-Fullerton Democrat.

By law, the council can delete items from the final spending plan, but not add to it.

"It's what you have to do when times are tight," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "It's what we have to do in our own households."

A slump in the housing market and state budget cuts required a particularly lean spending plan, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said.

"This budget will control government spending during this difficult time," he said.

Cost-of-living raises for county employees, including teachers, are not included in Smith's budget for the 2009 fiscal year, which begins in July.

"We'd all like pay raises," said Kamenetz. "But it doesn't mean we can afford them."

The executive was required by binding arbitration to include the raises for some police officers, but the council is not required to keep them in the budget it approves.

Smith offered to find $4 million to trim in the budget if council members want to keep the police raises.

Several council members said they feel they have to abide by the arbitrator's conclusions, especially since county voters had approved the binding arbitration process in a 2002 referendum.

Overturning the arbitrator's conclusion, Bartenfelder said, "would destroy the intent and spirit of binding arbitration."

"We may have to defer some projects," said Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat.

The county executive proposes spending $230 million on capital projects such as school renovations and library additions.

The county has budgeted about $650 million to cover the school system's operating costs, which is about a 5 percent increase over last year's budget, but about $15 million less than what the school board had hoped to get for the coming school year.

The 9,000-member Teachers Association of Baltimore County has protested the lack of raises in recent weeks, including launching a work-to-rule job action.

The union maintained that without across-the-board raises, more than 20 percent of the teachers will receive no increase at all, and an additional 20 percent, generally newer educators, will take a cut after paying more toward pension and health care expenses.

County schools spokeswoman Kara E. Calder said yesterday that the superintendent will focus on securing raises for teachers in the next budget cycle.

"We're pleased that we haven't lost any [teacher] positions and services," Calder said. " ... It gives us a solid foundation as we begin to work on salary enhancements."

Cheryl Bost, president of the teachers union, criticized the system's plans to wait until next year to seek raises.

"This is not going to go over well with teachers," said Bost, who added that the union would be considering other protests and job actions through the end of the school year.

Calder said school officials are focusing on the "gains" in the budget, which also will allow expansion of several key academic initiatives.

Nearly all of the requested teacher positions were granted to help expand one such program, Advancement Via Individual Determination, a national college-prep program that is available at all county high schools and is being expanded to the middle schools.

The county's school budget includes $8.5 million to make up for decreasing Medicaid reimbursements for special-education teachers, psychologists, school social workers and health assistants.

However, no money was included to continue the school system's experiment with virtual instruction.

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

Hearings on individual department budgets will be next month. Approval is scheduled for May 22.


Baltimore County proposed 2009 budget by the numbers:

$2,020: Average residential property tax bill, based on a home valued at $253,000 $2 million: Amount included in capital budget for agricultural preservation $1 million: Amount needed to plan a "Storyville" early-childhood learning center at Woodlawn library $40 million: State cuts in funding to Baltimore County $19,500: Expected revenue from marriage ceremony fees

[Source: County executive's budget message]

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