The Howard County Council unanimously approved a $358 million budget yesterday that will enable the county to hire 22 police officers and 20 firefighters without raising taxes.
In approving the budget, the council's Republican majority backed off earlier threats to delay the hiring of firefighters.
The council also resisted school board pressure to add $1.3 million to the budget for schools programs.
Instead, the council executed the blueprint of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, not straying a single dollar from the spending plan he proposed a month ago.
"I think we could have done a little better with education," complained Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray of east Columbia.
But he and Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, joined the Republicans to endorse the budget of operating expenses for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The County Council also unanimously approved a $97.2 million capital budget detailing major projects planned for the coming year.
There were some changes but all were made voluntarily by Ecker.
"Mr. Ecker certainly has done a superb job," said Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican, as he voted for the budget.
Highlights of the budget include:
The property tax rate will stay at $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, which has been the rate since 1991. Growing assessments around the county should make individual tax bills increase an average of 2 percent. The income tax rate will stay frozen at 50 percent of the state rate.
Howard schools will receive $253.4 million, with $184.6 million coming from the county. That is $800,000 more than the minimum increase required by the state according to a formula known as "maintenance of effort."
The amount going to schools is enough to pay for planned raises for teachers and other school employees. Most will get raises of at least 3.5 percent.
An expenditure of $3.4 million is included to raise the pay of the county's 1,800 non-school employees. All workers are supposed get raises ranging from $600 to several thousand dollars during a vast overhaul of the personnel system scheduled for the fall.
New police, firefighters
Beginning in January, the county's Police Department will be able to hire 22 officers to augment its current force of 327 officers. Chief James N. Robey plans to add additional round-the-clock patrols in Ellicott City and east Columbia while bolstering other programs.
Beginning in January, the Department of Fire and Rescue Services plans to add 20 firefighters in the second phase of a three-year plan to bolster the department's staffing by 60 new positions. The department now has 215 career firefighters.
The new firefighters generated the most controversy in the month of budget hearings and work sessions that ended with yesterday's vote.
In union negotiations earlier in the year, the firefighters and police unions offered significant savings through shift changes and other concessions in exchange for 20-year retirement packages. Both unions offer full retirement at 25 years.
Council Republicans, citing unknown long-term costs, rejected the deal, then later criticized the unions for rescinding savings they had offered at the negotiating table.
They threatened to delay hiring firefighters until an outside consultant completed an efficiency study of the department.
But Ecker stepped in and persuaded council Republicans to approve the budget as he had proposed it.
"We wanted to be good guys," said Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican.
Despite the council vote, final decisions on schools -- operating funds and projects alike -- await Friday's school board meeting.
Schools must trim
At least one school project, likely the Ellicott Mills Middle School renovation, will be delayed.
The council's decision to approve Ecker's budget without changes means the Howard school board will be forced to trim about $1.3 million from its $254.7 million spending request when it approves final versions of its operating and capital budgets.
Last week, board members indicated that some of those cuts will come from reductions in amounts the board had planned to spend this fall to hire school lunch and recess monitors and to buy library books for older schools.
Other cuts are likely to come from building maintenance and the upgrades of computer networks in some elementaries.
The council also approved a $97.2 million capital budget for the county that will finish cleanups at Alpha Ridge and Carrs Mill landfills while setting aside money for major intersection improvements.
The budget includes $36 million to cover half the cost of three new overpass intersections: Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway, U.S. 29 and Johns Hopkins Road, and U.S. 29 and Route 216.
State road funds
For months, Ecker has said the county will build all three -- if the state picks up half the tab. State highway officials have not yet decided to accept the offer.
The new capital budget will increase the county's general obligation borrowing by $27.6 million, though most of the projects will be paid for through special funds, grants and other types of borrowing.
Howard Co. operating budget changes
Department .. .. .. FY 1997 .. .. FY 1998 .. .. % change
Schools .. .. .. ... $177.4 .. ... $184.6 .. .. ... 4.1%
Comm. college .. .. .. $9.7 .. .. . $10.1 .. .. ... 4.5%
Police ... .. .. .. . $25.9 .. .. . $27.2 .. .. ... 5.3%
Fire .. .. .. .. .. . $20.0 .. .. . $20.3 .. .. ... 1.1%
Parks . .. .. .. .. .. $5.2 .. .. .. $5.8 .. .. .. 11.2%
Public works ... .. . $51.5 .. .. . $57.9 .. .. .. 12.4%
Debt service ... .. . $40.7 .. .. . $43.4 .. .. ... 6.6%
Notes: All figures are in millions. The 1997 fiscal year ends June 30, and the 1998 fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, 1998. Schools and community college figures include only county contributions, not state and federal funds; for other departments, total budgets are given.