Council asks to borrow money to give older schools new electronic equipment

May 18, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The Howard County Council yesterday asked County Executive Charles I. Ecker to let the county borrow $4.7 million in the coming fiscal year to put older schools on a technological par with newer ones.

The request is part of a complicated plan to restore $2.1 million to the school board's operating budget for fiscal 1995, which starts July 1.

But if Mr. Ecker turns down the council's request, the three Democrats on the five-member council seem ready to move forward with an alternative plan to cut key programs in the noneducation portion of Mr. Ecker's budget -- including police overtime and snow removal.

The school board originally asked Mr. Ecker for $166.6 million in local funding for its operating budget, but last month he cut that request by $4.3 million.

The council can restore what the executive cut from the school budget, but to do so, it must raise taxes or cut elsewhere. Rather than do either, the council wants the executive to shift funds within his budget and let the county borrow to provide older schools with new computers and other new electronic equipment.

The council expects a reply from the executive today and plans to discuss that reply at today's 8 p.m. work session.

At this point in the negotiations -- the council will set the tax rate and vote on the budget at noon Monday -- council members and the executive are playing a cat and mouse game as they seek accord on a budget that each can find palatable.

The council can cut funds, but it cannot increase them on its own. If the council wants to put more money into a particular program, it needs Mr. Ecker's consent.

Mr. Ecker can refuse to shift money as the council wants, but he cannot prevent the council from cutting things he wants to keep in the budget. To keep his items intact, he needs the council's help.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a 3rd District Democrat, reminded Mr. Ecker of those possibilities in a memorandum yesterday.

"Based on my conversation with you this weekend, I understand your preference would be to increase the debt level to allow funding for the [school board request] rather than have us cut operating expenses in other agencies or to reduce funding for capital projects such as state roads to free up funds," Mr. Gray said.

What may make it difficult for Mr. Ecker to comply with the request, is that the council is seeking an increase of $4.7 million for new equipment at older schools, rather than the increase of $1.6 million sought by the school board.

Mr. Gray's argument is that if the county is borrowing the money over a five-year period for the project, it might as well borrow the whole amount, rather than part of it. The school system had planned to spread the $4.7 million request over three years, beginning with $1.6 million in the coming year.

The council is asking Mr. Ecker to add the money in two steps. The first would add $4.7 million to an existing capital account in the education budget called "land acquisition reserve." That account is a contingency fund used for education projects on an as-needed basis.

The second step calls for Mr. Ecker to promise to create a capital project for the new equipment and send it to the council within three months. In addition, the county executive would request that the money added to the contingency fund be transferred to the new account.

The reason for parking the money in the contingency fund is that the executive cannot create a new capital project without first sending it to the Planning Board for review.

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