Robey offers fiscal plan

$683 million budget focuses on education, police and pay raises

Council reaction positive

Fire property tax only planned increase in the blueprint

April 20, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive James N. Robey wants to spread the wealth from a robust economy to new education programs, a special police squad and employee pay raises in the $683 million budget he's proposing for next fiscal year.

Robey proposed only one tax increase -- 3 cents in the fire property tax rate that would cost the owner of an average county home an additional $21.60.

Although general property tax rates would remain unchanged in the spending plan, state assessment increases will cost homeowners $37 more next year, on average.

Robey said he had to propose raising the fire tax to keep the fire and rescue services self-supporting. In fiscal year 1999, which ends June 30, the county had to supplement fire tax revenues with general county revenues, but he said the tax increase is only a temporary answer.

Robey, who was elected in November, said he will appoint a committee to examine the system and recommend some other way to pay for fire services. Most counties pay for them with general fund revenues, while Howard adds 19 to 24 cents per $100 of assessed value to property tax bills as a separate fire tax. The county's general property tax rate of $2.59 per $100 of assessed valuation remains unchanged under what would be Robey's first budget.

Robey's spending plan left school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's spending request $4.8 million short, but that didn't appear to spark a battle with the County Council. All five members praised the budget -- a sharp contrast from last year when Charles I. Ecker, the former executive, sharply cut school funding while also reducing the local income tax, prompting a controversy and council action to restore some of the money.

"I didn't have $5 million more to fund it. I think we have to be realistic here," Robey said yesterdayafternoon at a news conference in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. He noted that 75 percent of the new spending will go to county schools and Howard Community College.

The $20 million in new spending for schools is a record in the county, Robey noted.

Asked if he would veto any council proposal to increase the income tax to what it was in 1997, Robey said he wasn't sure. "There is no fat in this budget," he said.

Of the $4.8 million that was cut from Hickey's budget request, school board President Karen B. Campbell said, "It was a bigger cut than I expected" and noted that "last year, the council restored more than that."

She said without the money, it may be difficult to begin all the new programs that are planned.

In Howard County, the council may restore money cut from school funding either by cutting other programs or by raising taxes. The council, which received Robey's spending plan last night, must act by June as the budget for fiscal year 2000 takes effect July 1.

Including Howard Community College, the proposed budget would pay for 403 new education positions, compared with 34 for the rest of county government. By way of contrast, police Chief Wayne Livesay requested 37 new officers, but got six.

Robey said the proposed increase in education spending showed that programs to reduce class sizes in reading in early grades were among his priorities.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray of Columbia praised the proposed budget of his fellow Democrat, but said he wants to examine it closely to make sure schools will get all they need.

"I think it's a vast improvement over prior years," Gray said, adding that he wants "to make absolutely certain, we're able to achieve these goals."

Other members made similar comments, including the council's two Republicans, Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and Allan H. Kittleman from western Howard. They called the proposed budget "responsible" and "reasonable" respectively.

Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat, said Robey's education cut was half of Ecker's percentage-wise, and school spending will increase 10 percent under Robey's plan, compared with 7.8 percent last year, even after the council restored cuts.

In other areas, the spending plan would add six police officers to create a mobile squad to quickly attack crime in neighborhoods where an unusual increase has occurred. Chief Livesay said he could hire the officers laterally, from other departments, and get the squad rolling very soon. With graduation of a 12-member recruit class in June, he said, the department will have only two vacancies.

Robey also included funds for a new library branch in Glenwood in the western county; two new security officers at the county court building, where a man allegedly killed his estranged wife and shot her daughter after a domestic hearing last month; a new prosecutor; two new sheriff's deputies, who would be assigned to domestic violence cases, and $50,000 to provide legal aid to poor residents.

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