The Howard County Council began work on the fiscal 1996 budget yesterday by tentatively approving all of the noneducation projects included in County Executive Charles I. Ecker's $93 million capital budget proposal.
The $49.5 million in projects approved by straw votes of the council yesterday range from $1.8 million for the repair of the road over Brighton Dam Bridge to $4.9 million for the design and construction of a Marriottsville facility to temporarily hold trash that the county intends to ship elsewhere.
The council is to begin hearings April 27 on the executive's $328.5 million operating budget request. Hearings on the education portion of the budget are to take place in early May.
While yesterday's votes were not binding, council members were sufficiently satisfied with their work at the two-hour, 17-minute capital budget work session that they canceled a second session scheduled for April 26.
Among other the capital spending requests tentatively approved yesterday for the fiscal year that starts July 1:
* $10 million to bring county water to 600 property owners who live near the Alpha Ridge Landfill. Carcinogenic contaminants have been discovered in the ground water in test wells at the landfill.
* $1.6 million to complete a $3 million fire station being built near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Route 100.
* $357,000 of a $2 million project to modernize the central library.
The council's capital budget review now turns to requests from Howard Community College and the school system. The $1 million request from the college is likely to win preliminary approval easily -- but the Board of Education request could lead to pyrotechnics.
Although they would get $32.5 million under Mr. Ecker's proposal, school officials are likely to press hard for restoration of the $9.4 million that he cut from their request. They are expected to argue that the extra money is needed to prepare for an increase in school enrollment of more than 30 percent in the next decade.
Money is tight
The administration is likely to press its view that money is tight and that the school system can continue to provide quality education with school buildings built smaller than in the past.
Restoring the amount Mr. Ecker cut from the school request would cost the county about $1 million more annually in bond payments a couple of years from now, administration officials contend. The county pays about $90,000 a year in debt service for every $1 million of bonds it sells, says Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director.
The county already is paying about $5.5 million more a year to cover its debt today than it did two years ago, Mr. Wacks said, and the debt is still growing.
"We're spending more and more on mortgage payments and are not having enough money to live on," he said.
Council members appear reluctant to increase the county debt by more than the $41 million that Mr. Ecker proposes to add in fiscal 1996. And they were told by department heads yesterday that the fiscal year beginning July 1 "is the good year" to begin such belt-tightening.
The real crunch will begin a year from now when the county will be looking to fund $55 million in non-education projects that Public Works Director James M. Irvin says are essential.
Future costs of storm water removal alone could run even higher than the tens of millions of dollars the county is spending on landfill cleanups, said Councilman Dennis Schrader, R-3rd.
With costs looming and the school board already receiving 80 percent of the county bond financing proposed for the coming fiscal year, school board members know they will be fighting an uphill battle to get the council to restore what Mr. Ecker cut from the school budget.
But Mr. Schrader and Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th may have given school officials some ammunition yesterday. Both want to spend a slightly more on projects in their districts in fiscal 1996 than Mr. Ecker proposed.
Mr. Schrader wants a $35,000 study of road networks in North Laurel moved forward from fiscal 1997, and Mr. Feaga wants $135,000 from the Glenwood library project pushed ahead.
The library is part of a $12.8 million project to build a community center in fiscal 1998 that would provide police, fire, health, and recreational facilities in the same building with the library.
Although the dollar amounts are small, school board members would likely argue that if the council is willing to amend the budget for non-school matters, it should also do it for school matters.
The council will hold a public hearing on the Board of Education proposal May 4.
The hearing on the community college request is set for May 2.
Work sessions on both the school system and community college requests will be held May 10.
The council plans to set the tax rate and approve a budget for fiscal 1996 on May 19.