Arundel Council Approves Budget, Raises Property Tax Rate

… County budget includes layoffs, furloughs and cuts to community college …

By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

8:37 PM EDT, May 24, 2011

The Anne Arundel County Council raised the county property tax rate Tuesday, as it passed a budget plan that includes a steep funding decrease to the county’s community college and delays a new facility for one of its most academically successful high schools.

The council has been sharply divided during deliberations over the $1.2 billion spending plan for next fiscal year, discussing changes for more than 12 hours in one day last week. Members approved the rate increase — a hike of 3 cents per $100 of assessed value that was proposed by County Executive John R. Leopold — by a 4-3 vote.

With an eye toward long-term stability as the county continues to suffer the fiscal consequences of the recession, the council also moved to shore up its reserves. The plan directs about $5 million in budget savings to the rainy day fund and another $5 million to the county’s contingency fund.

The council also approved Leopold’s plan for the county’s first layoffs in two decades, cutting 35 employee positions that are vacant and 14 that are now filled. All county employees would be furloughed for 12 days, amounting to a pay cut of about 5 percent.

But the council also rejected some of Leopold’s most prized projects, including a complete rebuilding of Severna Park High School, which the executive had bumped to the top of the county school system’s construction priority list. The council delayed the Severna Park project by two years and replaced it with funding for construction at six county schools.

Council members stripped the community college of $5.2 million in funding — about 15 percent of the college’s total budget. In addition, the county’s contribution to the county workers’ health insurance fund will decrease by about $8 million, though county officials said there will be no negative effect on employees. The council also voted to prohibit department heads from using county vehicles and to prevent the county Police Department from purchasing new police cruisers.

While Leopold said the majority of his proposals remained untouched — including pet projects such as $250,000 for a new gymnasium at a charter school — he called some of the council’s cuts “ill-advised and imprudent.”

County analysts warned that without the property tax rate increase, the county would have lost out on $80 million over the next four years.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who voted for the increase, said it was the “responsible thing to do.” Republican Jerry Walker and Democrats Chris Trumbauer and Daryl Jones also voted for the raise.

Walker and Jones introduced legislation that the council will consider later this month to decrease the county’s income tax rate by 2 percent. The council will consider the proposal, which would save county taxpayers about $4 million.

Martha A. Smith, president of the county community college, decried the cuts to the school — the first in three years — as “very short-sighted.”

“The real travesty of this action is that the pain is going to be felt by students,” said Smith. “That is what the real deep heartache is for us.”

The county’s public school system escaped further cuts, after Leopold budgeted $6 million less than the previous year in school funding.

In a statement, County Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell applauded the council.

“I am pleased that our school system was not subjected to any further cuts, which would have jeopardized our progress and the quality of education we provide to more than 75,500 students every day,” he said.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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