The St. Mary's County commissioners approved a $247.6 million operating budget Tuesday for the coming fiscal year. It includes large increases in spending for schools and the sheriff's office, and decreases property and income tax rates.

The new budget represents a $17.4 million, or 7.6 percent, increase over the current year's and has grown more than $600,000 during the review process since it was proposed. The budget takes effect July 1.

As is the case every year, the biggest single appropriation in the approved county budget goes to the Board of Education -- $62.6 million, an increase of 6.3 percent. The sheriff's office, for which the commissioners authorized nine new deputies and an inmate services coordinator, is the second-biggest account, at $20.8 million; funding is up $2.2 million, or 11.7 percent, over the current year's.

The county's general fund expenditures for basic government services and operations, excluding education, will rise from $138.6 million to $151.3 million under the approved budget.

Commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) gave qualified praise to the spending blueprint, but he also said he was disappointed that his proposal to give a $2.5 million tax refund to residents did not win the support of a majority of the five commissioners. He said that the overall spending increase is too high and that he wanted it to be between 4 and 5 percent.

"I do not support the way we're spending our revenues. We have excess revenues from last year, we have a large fund balance, and I believe that fund balance should be given back to the citizens," McKay said. "I'm happy because [the budget] really has a big focus on education and public safety. However, it's a larger increase than we would normally have in county government."

Other commissioners decided the $2.5 million would be better applied to a "pay-go" account, which would be used to finance capital projects rather than having to issue county bonds.

"I would like to . . . reduce the amount of money that we have to borrow," said Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown). "I think we need to be fully prepared for a couple of big-ticket items that will be coming along, including a new high school, middle school and the conditions at the detention center."

Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) said: "I believe we have to look to the future. Will I take a political hit? I may, but it's probably the right thing to do to put that money aside."

The commissioners agreed to reduce the income tax rate from 3.05 percent to 3 percent of taxable income, effective Jan. 1. The fiscal 2004 rate was 3.1 percent. The latest change will have a revenue impact of $900,000 to $1 million, county finance director Elaine Kramer said.

The property tax rate also continued to decline in St. Mary's, dropping from 90.8 cents per $100 of assessed value two years ago, to 87.8 cents last year, and now to 87.2 cents, effective July 1.

Much of the discussion on Tuesday was about education funding because the school board came in with a last-minute request for an additional $609,400, primarily to address problems at Great Mills High School. Interim Superintendent Lorraine Fulton had convened a task force to look at ways to combat problems with the school's attendance rates and test scores, which are lower than those at other county high schools. After the task force made its recommendations, she asked for the funds to create six positions at the school: a safety advocate (with a salary and benefits package totaling $48,900); the school's fifth assistant principal ($98,800); a full-time hall monitor ($33,800); a full-time teacher mentor ($54,370); a registrar position ($48,520); and a secretary ($40,670).

"It is a school that has had a number of problems that we want to be able to address so they don't take away from the very real achievements of students at that school," said Board of Education Chairman Cathy Allen.

The extra $600,000 eventually approved by the commissioners also includes funding for a criminal justice teacher at the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center in Leonardtown, a new "data warehouse" computer system to analyze student test scores and a staff person to run it.

"I think we've done a lot of good things when you look at the budget," Kramer said.