Howard County to slash budget by 5 percent Building excise tax also considered to offset deficit

September 13, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

The Howard County budget, already 12 percent leaner than last year, will be cut by another 5 percent to offset a $3 million deficit and anticipated cuts in state revenues, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday.

In another action yesterday aimed at easing fiscal problems, county officials announced that they will seek legislative approval of a "building excise tax" on construction to fund road improvements.

Mr. Ecker told the County Council that he will cut the budget by freezing hiring, eliminating non-essential travel, deferring equipment purchases, reducing road resurfacing and refinancing the county's bonds.

The first-term Republican executive said that he is asking the county school system, Howard Community College, the library and the sheriff's office to return money to county coffers. "It is a voluntary thing," he said.

But those agencies, already faced with budget cuts, said they can return little, if any, money.

"We will look, but I doubt it," said Deborah D. Kendig, the chairwoman of the county school board. "We returned close to $2 million last year, but this budget is really cut close."

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said, "The likelihood of returning any funds this year is small because the school system has to absorb 1,300 additional kids and . . . we received a slight decrease in county support this year."

The school system responded to Mr. Ecker's request last fiscal year to trim spending by returning $2 million, because "we had a lot more flexibility in our budget at that time," Mr. Hickey said.

"It will be extremely difficult for us to do," said Marvin Thomas, the county's library director, noting that reductions already have forced the library system to close on eight holidays when it used to be open, halt operations on summer Sundays and end bookmobile service.

Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo said that his department "will try to cooperate, but it would be only a minimal amount, if that, or we would have to reduce services to the Circuit Court."

"There is no fat in the budget, and we would have to cut into meat and potatoes," he said.

Steven W. Sachs, chairman of the Howard Community College Board of Trustees, said that the two-year college in Columbia "already has tightened the belt several notches, and I don't know if there is anything available, especially when enrollment is up about 9 percent."

The cause of the latest round of budget cutting is the county's projected $3 million shortfall for the fiscal year that ended June 30, based on an audit that is not yet complete.

Besides that, the county is bracing for cuts in state aid because the state government has a shortfall of at least $350 million this fiscal year. Mr. Ecker said that based on preliminary estimates by state budget officials, local governments in Maryland could lose $100 million in state aid this year, and Howard County could lose $5 million.

In requesting the additional 5 percent budget cut, Mr. Ecker said some of the funds could be released later "if the money comes in or if the state does not make the anticipated cuts."

The 12 percent cut lopped $14 million from county operating costs this fiscal year, which cost 40 employees their jobs and eliminated 120 vacant positions. Eleven of the laid-off employees were rehired.

The 5 percent cut will trim nearly $5 million from the current $98 million operating budget, and the hiring freeze will affect some 40 vacant positions.

Mr. Ecker said that the county is not considering further layoffs.

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget officer, said that he was concerned about the drop-off of personal income tax revenue to the county. He said that state income tax payments are running 30 percent below the same period last year.

County officials say that the prospects for a balanced budget this current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 1992, will depend on the beneficence of the state government.

"If the state does not cut revenues to the county, we can expect enough funds to get close to having a balanced budget," Mr. Wacks said.

Revenue from the residential and commercial construction tax proposal announced yesterday would resemble developer impact fees, said Joe Rutter, the county's planning director. However, instead of being applied to a road project affected by the developer's subdivision, the tax revenues would be applied to the "general benefit" of the county's road program and "supplement but not supplant county funding," he said.

County officials have not determined how much revenue would be raised by the tax, which would be based on the size of the construction. The county executive plans to review the taxing proposal and the recommended adequate public facilities ordinance before any legislation is requested, he said.

Mr. Rutter told the council of the proposed new tax while outlining progress on an adequate public facilities ordinance. The ordinance, being written by a committee of developers, community representatives and county officials appointed by Mr. Ecker, would set standards for road and school capacity, which the county would use in approving development projects.

Mr. Ecker hopes to have the adequate facilities legislation pre-filed Oct. 23.

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