The County Council cut nearly $1 million from the proposed operating budget last week but kept in place a 9 percent pay raise for government employees.
The seven-member panel labored long over 111 amendments to the 2009 budget, which must go to the county executive by Friday. While some changes were the council's own, most came from the administration. Members approved all but a few of the amendments and are set to vote on the nearly $900 million budget Tuesday.
"We have to make sure our amendments balance the budget," said Council President Billy Boniface. "We made close to $1 million in cuts on the operating side. I think we can move forward without increased taxes."
County Executive David R. Craig proposed an $895.8 million budget for fiscal 2009 that addresses declining revenues with no jump in taxes and the smallest increase in spending in the past 10 years.
The proposed salary increase for some 1,200 county employees, who have heavily lobbied for raises, appears likely to pass.
"We have to take care of our people first," said Councilman James V. McMahan.
Councilman Dion Guthrie said, "I am 100 percent for the raises."
Several amendments reflect the fallout from recent council actions, including the refusal to increase, by $10 per ton, the tipping fee that trash haulers pay at the landfill and waste-to-energy plant. That denial forced the county to cut hours and personnel to make up for the nearly $2 million in anticipated additional revenues from the proposed $60 fee.
"The administration should not have plugged in the increase, before they got it," said Guthrie.
The county reviewed other jurisdictions' fees and found a 20 percent increase still below the market, county administration director Lorraine T. Costello said.
"Our operating costs have increased, too," she said. "The landfill would be self-sufficient with the tipping fee. Without the increase, we need another $1.6 million. It will all be up to taxpayers one way or another."
The council was most concerned with the administration's proposal to limit the landfill's Saturday openings to two a month. Lines of vehicles waiting to dispose of household trash at the landfill on Saturdays often stretch for more than mile. That amendment failed.
"This closing would have a detrimental effect on the neighborhoods surrounding the landfill," said Councilman Chad Shrodes. "People might dump trash when they found the landfill closed."
The county has undertaken a $3 million expansion of its landfill in Street and may triple the capacity of its waste-to-energy operation with the construction of a $350 million plant. Tipping fees will help pay for both projects.
"The cuts will offset the gap," Boniface said. "We have provided funding to keep positions and keep it opened."
Costello said, "This is one-time funding. What do we do next year at the landfill?"
Scrapping the administration's $82 million global plan to consolidate county offices that are scattered through downtown Bel Air has just added $400,000 to the 2009 budget to pay for more rental properties.
The state fire marshal has said the county administration building on Main Street cannot add another employee and now insists that the county relocate some offices to ease the crowding, officials said.
Rental costs will likely climb higher before the county can solve its space crunch, she said. The plan included a new administration building within three years.
The council is willing to revisit the consolidation plan at a later date, Boniface said, adding that he had not felt any backlash from the decision to derail the plan.
The council also pared to $2 million the $20 million requested for site acquisition and development in the capital fund. The money would pay for the purchase of land for public buildings, particularly schools. The remaining $2 million will bring the fund to nearly $6 million, a reasonable amount, council members said.
"We are paid to be stewards of taxpayer dollars," Boniface said.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said she was unwilling to establish a $20 million bank account for land purchases that are frequently not debated publicly. But Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" Chenowith said land is becoming scarce and more costly to buy.