Increased revenue a must, panel says It urges holding off on any new projects

January 11, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Howard County should raise property taxes or impose new user fees before committing to build more schools, roads and parks, an advisory group told County Executive Charles I. Ecker yesterday.

The committee's recommendations received a qualified endorsement from county leaders, who agreed that Howard's tight financial situation likely will require higher taxes or new fees on services such as trash disposal, burglar alarms and ambulance calls.

"We will seriously look at ways to increase revenues," Mr. Ecker said. "I don't know what, but I expect we'll do something."

Said Howard County Council Chairman Darrel Drown: "Fees are definitely something we'll have to look at. I don't see how we can turn down all the capital budget. There are schools that have to be built and other projects that need to get done."

The county's 16-member Spending Af-fordability Advisory Committee told Mr. Ecker that the Howard government should look at the services it provides and find ways to reduce expenses and generate more revenue. If not, the panel said, the county should avoid new debt for capital projects.

"The cumulative effect of past borrowing requires Howard County to change the way it does business, or it will significantly impair the quality of life for our residents," the report states. "Howard County no longer has the luxury of mortgaging its future."

Steven Sachs, a Howard County insurance executive and chairman of the committee, said the county must "decide whether we want to maintain our current quality of life and how we want to pay for it. If we want to cut the quality of life here -- and I'm not for that -- then that will be a legitimate decision for the county to make."

The affordability committee makes annual recommendations to Mr. Ecker on how much debt the county can handle in its next budget. Last year, the committee recommended a $25 million cap on new capital projects, but the county approved more than $40 million in new projects.

The county executive will propose his capital and operating budgets for fiscal 1997 this spring.

Mr. Ecker said yesterday that he did not know how much money his department heads would seek for capital projects.

But James M. Irvin, the public works director, said last fall that he would need $38 million next year for more road, intersection and bridge improvements. The school system has requested a similar amount for school construction, additions and renovations.

The county expects its revenues to increase by about $9 million next year. But $4 million of the additional revenue would be committed to existing debt, and state law requires that the school system receive about $6.5 million more in county funding than it did this year -- leaving no money for new projects.

Every $1 million in new debt adds about $85,000 to the annual operating budget. The committee offered several ideas for creating revenue or saving money to pay for new construction projects, although it did not suggest specific amounts.

The ideas include:

* Privatizing additional services offered by the county government, school system and Howard Community College. School buses and trash removal already are handled by contractors.

* Adopting some method of charging residents fees for trash disposal. A proposal to charge a minimum annual fee of $100 for trash removal was put on hold last fall after drawing protests from residents at four public hearings. Mr. Ecker said he expects to have a new proposal ready to present to the County Council early next month.

* Charging fees for services such as ambulance calls and requiring paid permits for burglar alarms. Most ambulance calls are covered by medical insurance, and the county could write off the charge for residents who had no insurance or could not afford the fee, said Raymond S. Wacks, the county's budget administrator.

* Creating an environmental user fee to fund storm water management, landfill capping and cleanup projects.

* Examining the $116 million in bonds that have been authorized but not issued. Mr. Wacks and Mr. Sachs estimated that at least $20 million in such bonds could be withdrawn, freeing up money to be used for other construction projects.

* Increasing property taxes, rather than income taxes, if taxes are to be increased. The committee said raising income taxes would be more likely to discourage businesses from moving into Howard.

The recommendation that the county find new ways to generate revenue also received an endorsement yesterday from school board Chairwoman Susan Cook.

"While the school system has been creative with its funds, it's time for the county government to become more creative in finding ways to make money," Ms. Cook said. "Not just for education, but for everything else that needs to be taken care of."

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