Baltimore County Council members adopted a $2.58 billion operating budget yesterday that won't require increases in taxes or fees but that will improve the salaries of about 1,100 veteran police officers.
No employees, including teachers, will receive cost-of-living salary increases in the fiscal year that begins in July. County officials said the lean budget reflected the downturn in the local real estate market and state budget cuts.
The average residential property tax bill, based on a house valued at $253,000, is expected to be about $2,020, according to officials.
"The most troubling issue presented to us in this budget was the request to approve wage increases and related benefits for the police department," said council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz in the budget message he delivered at yesterday's meeting.
The council members' "reluctance" stems from binding arbitration - approved by county voters in 2002 - that "requires that we treat one group of employees differently than another, when we recognize that all county employees are facing the same economic hard times," Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, said.
During the final budget review last week, county lawmakers found $3.6 million to cut from the budget proposed by County Executive James T. Smith Jr. to offset the expense of providing an arbitrator-recommended 4 percent raise to police officers who have more than nine years' experience.
Not funding the arbitration award, Kamenetz said, "would have destroyed the integrity of a statute that the people of Baltimore County required us to adopt when they went to the polls in November of 2002 to approve a binding arbitration process for public safety employees."
The council members cannot add to or shift funds in the budget proposed by the county executive, who was required by law to include in the budget the police raises awarded in binding arbitration. The County Council was not required to fund the arbitration award, which restructures the police pay scale so that about 1,100 veteran officers will receive raises.
Because the council members try to balance government spending and projections for revenue - known as the spending affordability guidelines - they needed to offset the cost of the police raises through cuts.
Cheryl Bost, president of the county teachers union, said she was disappointed that the council's budget message did not include a directive to Smith to reconsider salary improvements for other county employees if revenues are better than expected.
The budget approved by the council also includes a reserve fund of $94.8 million, Bost said, noting that a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for teachers would have cost about $9.5 million.
"When you're looking at a surplus, it's hard to explain why they couldn't afford to pay employees," she said.
The council also unanimously approved several agreements made during the police arbitration process, including paying for flashlights, radios and batteries, and making changes to the vacation and bereavement leave policies.
But council members voted 5-2 against a guarantee not to furlough officers, an additional pension benefit and a union proposal to allow an additional union representative to be put on leave status. They also rejected, 5-2, the union's request to exchange Presidents Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day as paid holidays for the Fourth of July being made a paid holiday.
Councilmen Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton-Overlea Democrat, and John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, sided with the union on those issues.
All the council members except Olszewski voted to reject the union proposal on the role of disciplinary hearing boards. They agreed during last week's meeting that it was wrong to take the final authority from the police chief. But Olszewski said he felt he had to support each of the arbitration recommendations because the overall finding was in favor of the union.
Legislative proposals increasing the required size of residential lots in the Middle River area and providing some tax credits to residents who build houses that meet energy efficient standards also won council approval yesterday.
Selected projects and items funded by the Baltimore County operating and capital budgets that take effect July 1:
*$2.3 million to finish construction of the new Vincent Farm Elementary School, set to open in the fall
*$18 million for additions to schools along the York Road corridor, including funds to quickly begin building a new elementary school on the Ridge-Ruxton School property
*$500,000 to begin planning to replace the Towson fire station
*$1.2 million for the new Perry Hall library, scheduled to open in March
*$2.8 million for construction of the new Owings Mills Library, part of the Owings Mills Town Center project at the Metro station
*$4 million for the county Agricultural Center at Oregon Ridge Park
*$472,474 for overtime pay for police officers and firefighters
Source: Baltimore County Office of the Auditor