County Council finds money for schools: But cuts jobs, take-home cars in tight spending plan
The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
When the dust settled Thursday night, the County Council had cut dozens of vacant county jobs and take-home cars for department heads, and had even dug up $9 million for more school construction projects.
But as it sliced an additional $4 million in annual spending from the already shrunken $1.18 billion budget, the council largely left the spending plan of County Executive John R. Leopold intact.
"You guys accomplished some serious magic over the past few easy days," Council Vice Chairman Ron Dillon, R-Pasadena, told auditors and budget analysts after the council adopted changes to the budget. "It's a major, major win for the citizens of the county," Dillon said.
The council's tweaks to the budget brought good news for the school system, which received construction money for Annapolis and Point Pleasant elementary schools and the Phoenix Center, in addition to a renovation for Severna Park High School and science labs for Southern High School.
Libraries received an additional $500,000, and the county Community Action Agency received a $100,000 grant the group said it needs to keep its Glen Burnie branch open and serving the poor.
The council also stashed another $1.5 million in a savings account, which was raided as budget analysts closed the largest financial shortfall in county history.
"We didn't eat, we didn't sleep, and we made it work," County Auditor Teresa Sutherland said of the round-the-clock efforts to find more money for school construction.
But to make the additions, the council subtracted from projects for Anne Arundel Community College that were a centerpiece of Leopold's efforts to promote science, technology, engineering and math education.
Plans have been canceled for new math and cybersecurity labs that figured in a curriculum designed to train county residents for the defense-industry jobs expected to arrive in the area over the next few years from military base realignment.
"Residents will see a substantially leaner budget than we've had in the past two years," Councilman Jamie Benoit, D-Crownsville said. "Not all of what's in the budget is good. Residents will see a decrease in services."
Council members acknowledged that the budget still patches over huge revenue holes with savings that won't be there next year.
"We used $50 million of one-time money, and we're not going to have that $50 million next year," Councilman Charles W. Ferrar, D-Edgewater, said.
Most of the new money for school projects next year came from savings in this year's projects, whose construction bids came in lower than expected because of the poor economy.
"We're cutting and trimming and finagling, but overall it is a plus for us," schools spokesman Bob Mosier said of the budget changes. The council also provided $1.5 million for new textbooks.
Two schools previously scheduled for funding over the next three to five years were taken off the books. Benfield and Rolling Knolls elementary schools were considered a lower priority than the schools that did receive funding, officials said.
County Budget Officer John Hammond argued against cutting the take-home cars, a move that saved about $100,000, and against eliminating vacant jobs, saying that it's "poor management strategy" to cut jobs without looking at the effect on individual departments.
"They're being eliminated because of the accident that they are vacant," Hammond said.
The sweeping cuts to the car program touches top county leaders from State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee to Chief Executive Officer Dennis Callahan. If adopted as part of the final budget deliberation on Tuesday, the car program would end July 1.
Benoit initiated the crusade against cars, saying they are an unfair perk in a budget that forces most county employees to take 12 unpaid days off, and others to take a nearly 5 percent pay cut.
Cutting the cars "really was symbolic, as much as they were anything," Benoit said. "The message I was getting was that even though we were asking rank-and-file employees to take 2 1/2 weeks of furloughs ... the executives are entitled to extra compensation, which is basically what a car is."
Councilwoman Cathy Vitale, R-Severna Park, said the struggle of this year's budget shows the county's expenses are exceeding revenue, forcing employees to take pay cuts.
"This budget highlights the need for this county to restructure pension, health care and other benefits provided to the employees in an effort to ensure that Anne Arundel County doesn't suffer structural deficits like other jurisdictions have," Vitale said.
The council will take its final vote on the county's spending plan during an 11 a.m. meeting Tuesday at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert Street in Annapolis.