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County seeking ways to cut back

The Baltimore Sun

Plans to expand a local jail and an initiative to create housing for Anne Arundel's workers could be on the chopping block this year as county lawmakers look for ways to scale back government spending and rechannel money to schools.

County Council members, who are preparing for a second round of talks with school officials today, said they are reconsidering all of the new initiatives in the $1.2 billion budget proposed by County Executive John R. Leopold on May 1. Discussions over the cuts are still fluid, and firm decisions will not be released until after Monday, when County Auditor Theresa Sutherland makes her recommendations to the County Council.

"We are still really scrambling," Sutherland said. "I haven't even made [a] decision on what I am going to recommend yet."

Council members said that they are weighing whether to cut the proposal to expand the Ordnance Road Correctional Center in Glen Burnie, which will ultimately cost the county $53 million by 2013. They also hinted that Leopold's $2 million Workforce Housing Initiative may not pass the council's review in a year when the need to fully fund teacher raises and school construction has teachers, parents and students up in arms.

"I have to tell you there's a compelling argument when parents ask you to fund schools, not prisons," County Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, said in an interview Monday night. "The cost of that project is about $50 million, which is about the cost of a new elementary school. So if it's all about priorities, with this council you will hear loud and clear the priorities are the schools."

Councilman Daryl Jones also said the correctional center project could be an early casualty. "I can't tell you right now that it's going to be gone, but if you were looking for low-hanging fruit, that probably would be one of those pieces of fruit," he said.

At least three council members said the Workforce Housing Initiative also may not survive the budget review. Leopold proposed the initiative to create more affordable housing and offer counseling for first-time homebuyers.

"I think it's a great program, and I think it's well-intentioned," said Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat. "But is mortgage assistance and some affordable housing to a couple dozen people more important than appointing teachers and other resources in the classrooms?"

School funding dominated the first public hearing on the budget Monday night in Brooklyn Park, where about 800 people gathered in the auditorium of the Chesapeake Arts Center to weigh in.

The Anne Arundel County school system sought a $100 million increase for fiscal year 2009, bringing its operating budget to $969 million. The district hoped to receive about $77 million of the increase from the county; Leopold's budget proposal would give the schools $26 million, a 5 percent increase over this year.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell has painted a desperate scenario of a school system grappling with a $51 million shortfall. He has foreshadowed larger class sizes because 200 teacher vacancies may go unfilled. Schools will be warmer in summer and cooler in winter to save on utility costs. And as many as 200 more central office positions will be frozen or cut, which could force dozens of layoffs.

"It's an uncompromising commitment we have to schools, and it's difficult to justify new government initiatives when the schools are getting left without a chair," Benoit said.

Council members hinted at some ways they were considering scraping together funds to patch the shortfall, including tapping into a reserve fund to cover employees' future health insurance claims.

"Some of these numbers are based on past performance, what they paid out for health care last year, but maybe they won't need as much next year," said Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican. "So I think there's room to take a look at the numbers again and see if maybe we can go a little lower and use the money somewhere else."

Middlebrooks also said the council is wading through what county government vacancies can be left unfilled to save money. Leopold imposed a hiring freeze of nonemergency jobs in January to save $3 million by the end of this fiscal year, June 30.

The council is expected to approve a budget May 29.

A second public hearing on the budget will be held at 7 p.m today at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert St. in Annapolis.

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