$12 million surplus may spawn battle Several agencies are hoping to use the money

'They're already lining up'

Cleanup of landfills among many projects that need funding

November 11, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

A strong local economy has given Howard County a $12 million surplus -- and a host of county agencies are hoping for a piece of it.

The surplus -- revealed in a recent audit -- is the largest for Howard since the boom years of the 1980s, when county officials regularly used big surpluses to pay for operating expenses such as salaries.

A 1992 charter amendment pushed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker has changed the rules: Now, the surplus can be used only for building schools, paving roads or other one-time expenses.

News of the surplus, created from July 1996 to June 1997, has county officials thinking big.

"It's a little alarming to see some of the work that needs to be done," Tommie Tarsell, chairwoman of the county's Spending Affordability Committee, said yesterday. "They're already lining up."

County officials had expected $4 million of the surplus and budgeted that money for the cleanup and closure of the Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville.

A similar project, the cleanup and closure of the New Cut Landfill in Ellicott City, could get the remaining $8.2 million of the surplus.

"Certainly the landfill would be high on the priority list for use of that money," said Ecker.

New Cut, which closed in 1980, has leaked contaminants into area ground water and methane into the basements of two nearby homes, both of which the county has now bought. The county has also extended water lines to several area homes.

Cleaning up and closing the 42-acre landfill is expected to cost $12 million. Borrowing that money over the next 20 years -- as is common for major county projects -- would add hefty interest costs and force the bill onto future taxpayers who never used the landfill.

"That's something we need to pay for, and there's no future rewards," said Raymond Wacks, the county budget chief.

Since Ecker has been trying to hold the line on new borrowing, there could be a battle for that surplus.

The school board is requesting $36 million in projects, including a new high school and two new middle schools.

The Glenwood library is scheduled for construction, with a $5.2 million tab. Pressure will also grow for Ecker to build the long-delayed highway intersection at Snowden River Parkway and Route 175 in east Columbia.

Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, favors using the surplus to pay down the county's debt, which is now the highest in the state on a per-capita basis.

"Hopefully," said Drown, "we'll have another good year so we can begin to make a dent in this thing."

The county spent $43 million -- 12 percent of its budget -- making payments on $382 million of debt last year, according to a recent audit.

Despite the debate over how to spend the surplus, it is good news for a county that struggled during the recession of the early 1990s.

Wacks, who in 20 years as budget chief has seen Howard boom and bust, stopped short of calling the current era "good times."

"I would say 'better times,' " he said.

Property tax receipts came in higher than expected, suggesting that Howard's real estate market is growing, if only slightly. Income tax receipts were 3.9 percent higher than budgeted, for $4.5 million in extra revenues, the audit shows.

Much of the income tax increase came from capital gains taxes collected during 1996, a boisterous year on Wall Street when many investors saw double-digit returns on their investments, said Wacks.

The audit also shows Ecker spent $7.1 million less than he budgeted last year.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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