Prince George's County Council member William Amonett, a third-term incumbent from the rural Brandywine area, likes to think of himself as "a pretty conservative fellow," but council deliberations over the last two months that squeezed any fat out of next year's budget managed to amaze even him.
"We got down to professional memberships, magazine subscriptions, travel allowances. We're talking $35," Amonett said. "We said to people, 'You're getting two magazines . . . Pick one.' "
"I think," he said of the fat, "we've gotten every ounce there is."
The $550.9 million budget adopted by the council Tuesday was the first for council members, the majority of them newcomers, who were sworn into office last December. It was a frustrating and humbling experience of trying to squeeze many needs into a budget constrained since 1978 by the county's charter-mandated limit on property tax revenue (TRIM).
Faced with uncertain revenue and their own campaign promises to strip the budget down to size, council members combed through what aides called one of the most exhaustive and detailed budget reviews in years.
The council reviewed expenditures ranging from the multimillions to the minute. The first thing to go were cost-of-living increases to county employes, partly to erase a projected $30 million deficit, and partly to convince legislators in Annapolis they had done everything they could to help themselves before asking for state aid.
Other cutbacks were not as serious, however. The Department of Corrections, with a budget of $5.8 million, lost $35 for its subscription to Corrections Magazine, which is passed among jail officials. Jail spokesman James O'Neill said he would miss it so much he might get it at home.
"I hesitate to say that--they might cut everything--but I feel strongly about this magazine," he said. "We can't do much traveling. This is a way of keeping up." The jail also lost $25,000 for outside professional services like medical specialists. Of that item, O'Neill said, "We'll have to hope and pray we don't need them."
The sheriff's department, though receiving financing for 29 positions originally scheduled to be terminated, lost $695 in car-washing funds. "They're for the vans," spokesman Con Silard said. "The men wash their own cruisers, but this was for the vans that transport prisoners. We have five of them; they're in service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I guess they just won't get wash- ed."
Car-washing expenses were discussed extensively, particularly during debate over the budget for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC).
Council member Anthony Cicoria said the commission's appropriation of $10,000 for washing cars was exorbitant. It was cut in half in the final budget.
Cicoria also successfully moved to cut a $19,800 study on the effects of TRIM, the tax ceiling, that the park and planning commission proposed. But Cicoria then moved to have the money added back in the form of a bicycle path for his district. "There's very little recreation in this area; it's something that's really needed," he said. The council agreed.
Council members also cut funding for tuition assistance programs for WSSC employes, after Amonett and James Herl called it "outrageous" that the county was helping some employes to obtain college degrees. Council member Hilda Pemberton, clearly troubled, said she favored tuition assistance plans to help employes advance themselves, but she voted with the majority to be consistent.
"I guess if we don't give them to anybody else I'll have to go along," Pemberton said. The program, like cost-of-living raises for WSSC workers, was ultimately restored, however, because Montgomery County refused to go along with the cuts.
Some department officials, asking not to be named, said they were taken aback by the specificity of the council's inquiries. "They've got a multimillion dollar budget and they're asking things like, 'Why do you need to read The Post, why do you need to read the Journal?' I mean give me a break," one said.
But some council members said such discussions helped change their views. James Herl, a newcomer and at 30 the youngest council member, said earlier in the year that he wanted to eliminate some agencies like those for landlord-tenant problems and consumer protection to save money. But he decided against it. "I just decided that for the amount of money involved and the service they provide, it would be worth it to retain them," he said.