Council OKs budget of $315 million, maintains tax rate

May 24, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

An article in yesterday's Howard County edition incorrectly reported the day when the county's Board of Education will meet to make changes to the school system's operating and capital budgets. The meeting is next Wednesday.

The Sun regrets the error.

The Howard County Council unanimously passed a $315 million operating budget and $71.2 million capital budget yesterday, maintaining a property tax rate of $2.58 per $100 of assessed value.

Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd District, praised the council and County Executive Charles I. Ecker for not lowering the tax rate in an election year as happened in 1986 and 1990. In both instances, the rate increased more after the election than it had been lowered.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"The basic bottom line is that we held the line on taxes and said 'no' to special interest groups," Mr. Drown said.

Although the rate remains the same, property owners will be paying more in the coming year due to increased assessments. The owner of a $180,000 home, for example, will be paying about $98 more in taxes.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, also praised the executive and council members, saying the budget provides the government a "solid plan" for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Mr. Gray said the budget reflects four priorities: improving public safety; giving county employees a 3 percent raise; providing operating costs for a new branch library and other new facilities; and providing money necessary "to maintain our excellent public education system."

School officials may disagree, however. Mr. Ecker cut $4.3 million from the school request, and lawmakers did not restore it. The council and the executive did free up an extra $1.6 million by shifting funds around. The board may also get another $1.1 million in January if local income tax revenues exceed this year's revenues by 10 percent or more.

Regardless, the school board will have to cut at least $1.6 million from what members earlier said was a "well-reasoned, rational and supportable budget." The school board will meet 9 a.m. tomorrow to determine where the cuts will occur.

"With that size cut, it's impossible for it not to have any affect," said board Chairman Dana F. Hanna, but "I'm not going to add melodrama. This is not the end of [quality] education in Howard County. We are not standing on the edge of an abyss staring into evil."

Indeed, many residents might not notice the cuts because of the way the school system has been able to shift or postpone projects, he said. "That's the Catch-22," he said. "The cuts are rTC not so dramatic. There are not noticeable negatives, but there are no great strides forward either. It's only after a few years of not moving forward that you realize how stagnant we've become."

Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations, said after the budget vote that he had hoped for a different outcome.

"What it means," he said, "is that per-pupil expenditures are less than in the past. Some of the special needs cannot be addressed in the way that we had hoped to address them. Some services rendered in the past will not be rendered.

"In many subtle ways, [the cuts] impact some areas that hadn't been impacted" before, he said. Part of the board's task tomorrow will be to try to lessen the instructional impact of the cuts, he said.

Mr. Hanna said he expected board members would come to the meeting tomorrow with a list of things they felt could be postponed till midyear when another $1.1 million might become available.

If council members had voted to restore the money Mr. Ecker cut from education rather than shift money around, they would have had to cut from other departmental requests or raise taxes.

Two department heads -- State's Attorney William R. Hymes and Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo -- had earlier told the council that their budgets are so meager that they would be returning midyear to ask for more money.

Regardless, council members and Mr. Ecker seemed pleased with their work. "We were able to do something in this budget that we were not able to do in the past couple of years -- give employees a cost of living adjustment and add 20 new police officers, which will be good," Mr. Ecker said. "We were also able to include a little road resurfacing -- which is better than none at all." In previous years, road resurfacing was one of the first projects cut from Mr. Ecker's budget proposals.

Council Chairman Gray pointed with pride to budget compromises that "will provide a minimum standard level of computers and other technological equipment in each school" and allow several schools to replace boilers and air conditioners.

Mr. Gray said the "modest raise" being offered county employees is appropriate for a work force that did "an outstanding job to preserve high-quality services for the citizens of Howard County in a timely and courteous manner" despite a recession which brought unpaid furloughs.

Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, who is stepping down from the council at the completion of his term this December for personal reasons, concurred. "This is a budget one can be proud of," he said.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, said he believes the county has "provided for the good life" in the budget, but said he was worried about increased borrowing and the percentage of the budget being used to pay the county's mounting debt.

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