New budget figures even more bleak Revenue shortfall could be $4 million, school board is told

February 23, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Howard County's revenue shortfall for this year could be greater than previously projected, perhaps as much as $4 million, Raymond Wacks, the county budget administrator, told the school board last night.

County officials already had projected revenues for the current fiscal year would be about $2.8 million less than expected. But the latest property and income tax reports -- including new information received just this week -- indicate that Howard's revenue picture has gotten worse, Mr. Wacks said.

"This puts us in a very rough position," Mr. Wacks said as he updated the school board on the county's latest financial picture. "A combination of bad factors keeps piling on top of us."

Among the factors cited by Mr. Wacks were the sluggish economy, the restructuring of the federal government, the federal work furlough because of the budget dispute and decreased economic activity because of the blizzard in January.

But County Executive Charles I. Ecker maintained that he will reduce expenses to ensure that the county doesn't end the year with a deficit. "We're going to end the year with a balanced budget," he pledged

Mr. Ecker said he has frozen empty county positions and he's looking at reducing discretionary spending in all departments.

While the news does not have any immediate impact on Howard's education budget, it means that next year's financial picture for schools could be more bleak than had been expected.

Mr. Wacks said the latest figures are the ones that the county will rely on in preparing its budget for next year, including deciding how much money to give to the school system.

The county already has said that the biggest budget increase it will be able to provide to the school system for next year is $6.6 million -- the minimum required by state law to maintain spending levels with the projected increase in student enrollment.

But Mr. Ecker has warned that he may not be able to meet even that level. That possibility becomes more likely as Howard's revenues continue to grow at a slower-than-projected rate -- potentially forcing the school board to have to make large budget cuts later this spring in its spending plan for next year.

Although the school system has not been directed to help with the county's current revenue shortfall, schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey announced later in last night's meeting that he expects to be able to return about $1 million in unspent money to the county by the end of this fiscal year.

Dr. Hickey said Mr. Ecker can use that $1 million to help alleviate the county's revenue shortfall or to pay for the third and final year of the school system's technology equalization program of purchasing computers for older schools.

Several members of the County Council previously have said that if the school system has money left over at the end of the year, that money should go to the technology program so the county doesn't have to issue more bonds.

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