New county budget boosts school funds, but not taxes

The Baltimore Sun

The Anne Arundel County Council approved a $1.2 billion budget yesterday, cutting millions of dollars in County Executive John R. Leopold's proposal and channeling the funds to the financially strapped school system.

After weeks of deliberations and hearings, the council freed up $13.7 million that will allow the school board to fund four union contracts - but cutting a 6 percent pay raise for teachers to 5 percent - and salvage up to 150 teaching positions that would have been left vacant, school officials said.

The council members also scrounged up money in the $214 million capital budget to fund studies to build or renovate six schools and put up partitions in open-space classrooms, even as they scrapped Leopold's plan to raise the county's hotel tax from 7 percent to 10 percent.

"What's remarkable about this year's budget process is that despite the very different political bents of the seven council members, we all agreed on the priorities for this year's budget to find more funding for schools and to avoid having to raise the taxes," said council member Josh Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat.

Among their biggest cuts to balance the operating budget, council members scaled back Leopold's proposal to create affordable housing from $2 million to $500,000 and took $3 million from a health care fund meant to cover future insurance claims.

In the capital budget, council members deleted $2 million to design the expansion of a crowded jail in Glen Burnie, slashed $775,000 from the library system's funds to buy new materials and eliminated $2.1 million in proposed renovations and construction of police stations.

They passed a measure to impose a $500 fee for ambulance rides to the hospital, which will be implemented in April, and is expected to bring in close to $8 million a year, the largest new source of revenue.

The council also redirected $8.2 million in surplus funds intended for school textbooks into the school board's operating budget, a strategy that Leopold and his officials called "bad fiscal policy."

"I do have serious concerns about several of the changes the County Council has made since I first introduced the budget," said Leopold, a Republican, who nonetheless said he was pleased that "99 percent" of his operating budget remained intact. "The short-term fixes made by the council will have long-term effect on county budgeting and is not the responsible fiscal approach I would have preferred."

Leopold's proposal increased spending for the year beginning July 1 by a spare 2.9 percent, reflecting a $29 million dropoff in tax revenues for real estate sales and a $15 million reduction in state funding.

He had offered $26 million in new funds to the school system - a 5 percent rise but $51 million short of the amount school Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell requested.

After talks with the county auditor, school officials scaled back the district's request by some $30 million, allowing council members to come closer to the school board's target.

"When we started this budget process, we asked the County Council to do the right thing for our children," said Maxwell, who earlier this month warned that the shortfall in Leopold's budget would mean larger class sizes and colder classrooms in the winter.

"The results of this process show the power of collaboration and communication. ... Our school system, our children, and our county are in a far better position than we were in on May 1."

Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, agreed the process went more smoothly than in recent years. This was her ninth budget season.

"On whole, it was a decent budget," she said. "We made it better."

An article in yesterday's Metro section about passage of the Anne Arundel County budget mischaracterized the reason that Anne Arundel County teachers are getting a 5 percent raise, rather than the 6 percent previously negotiated. The Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County approved a 5 percent raise, rather than agree to a 6 percent raise with additional work hours.The Sun regrets the error.
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