County Council OKs '99 budgets Twin spending plans to total $529 million, go into effect July 1

May 27, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein and Jill Hudson Neal | Gady A. Epstein and Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

With a last bit of election-year grandstanding and partisan sniping, the Howard County Council approved yesterday a $398 million operating budget and a $131 million capital budget for the next fiscal year.

Both budgets, effective July 1, are products of the county's booming economy, increasing spending dramatically across the board while cutting the piggyback income tax.

The budgets include money to hire 20 firefighters, nab more red-light runners on camera, purchase the Smith farm in Columbia and build more classrooms for the county's growing student population.

But yesterday, the council's two Democrats hammered Republicans for what is not in the budgets, from big omissions -- nearly $6 million the schools wanted but didn't get -- to the sometimes overlooked -- $50,000 to open a Legal Aid office for the county's poor.

Democrats continue to blame a cut by Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker in the county's piggyback tax -- from ++ 50 percent of the state rate to 48 percent -- for taking money from schools.

"There has been no demand for this tax reduction," Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray said of the cut, which will cost $2.1 million next year and $5.5 million the year after that. "The money would have done an awful lot of good" for education.

Education spending will be up nearly 8 percent to $199 million, or more than half of the operating budget, after a bitter fight with educators forced the Republican council majority to add nearly $3.5 million last week to Ecker's proposed schools budget.

The Democrats eventually joined with Republicans in approving the operating and capital budgets yesterday. But Gray first tried to add another $1.2 million to the education budget, even though the votes were clearly lined up against him. Gray said schools would face "devastating cuts" without more cash, prompting a sharp GOP response.

Said GOP Councilman Darrel E. Drown, a former budget officer for the schools: "Only in America can an 8 percent increase be called a cut, and that's what we're hearing with the Board of Education."

'The great "malaise" '

Republican Councilman Dennis R. Schrader ridiculed Gray's rhetoric, comparing him to another, better-known Democrat who led the country through darker economic times.

"I thought I heard Jimmy Carter up here for a second, talking about the great 'malaise' that we're in," said Schrader, who is running against Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga for the GOP nomination for county executive. "But the American people are smarter than that."

Feaga said education remains the county's top priority, though he was also unhappy to have to cut from other programs to find more money for schools.

"This whole budget process is a balancing act," he said.

Ironically, Republicans are taking heat from Gray and Democratic Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung for one of those cuts made to find money for education: $50,000 to help reopen a Legal Aid office to serve the county's poor.

"Elimination of the Legal Aid by this council was totally unnecessary and mean-spirited," Gray said yesterday.

Legal Aid offers advice to those who cannot afford to pay for an attorney. Most of the cases involve consumer bankruptcy, emergency domestic issues and housing cases such as tenant disputes with landlords.

Howard had a Legal Aid office for four years -- from 1991 to 1995, when it closed because of federal spending cuts. The closest offices available to Howard residents are in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore.

Drown, one of the council members most opposed to the Legal Aid funding, said the county already has professionals available to help the poor.

"What we need to do is, we have to stop funding lawyers. They're a key Democratic constituency, trial lawyers," Drown said. "Why we have to have lawyers to decide if poor folks need help in services is absolutely crazy."

Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., executive director of Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, said yesterday that the council's decision to cut funds earmarked for Legal Aid was disappointing.

'Semblance of rationality'

The money "would have helped us tremendously," Joseph said. "I was hoping that some semblance of rationality would have returned [to the council] and that the funds would have been restored to the budget. But I guess the fat lady has indeed sung."

Had the County Council approved the funds for a Legal Aid satellite office, the $50,000 would have been matched by other Legal Aid offices throughout the state. A full-time attorney and paralegal would have been hired to work out of the courthouse in Ellicott City, according to Joseph.

In 1995, Howard's Legal Aid Bureau supervised 588 cases; last year, Legal Aid attorneys helped 342 Howard residents. About 8,200 Howard residents are eligible for the services.

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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