Budget battle heads for a vote

GOP, Democrats, executive disagree on funding schools

May 26, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The last act in Howard County's annual political theater of the budget is set to unfold at today's final vote on the $683 million spending plan, as County Council members wage a partisan fight over a proposed 2-cent tax increase.

Republicans Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and Allan H. Kittleman of western Howard say without a tax raise, they would have to cut 1 percent from other departments in order to give county educators the $302.8 million they're requesting.

What specifically to cut, Merdon said, should be "up to the administration." Last week, they said they could adjust the budget by cutting less than two-thirds of 1 percent.

Democrats insist the other departments need every penny they're getting and that the tax increase is a minimal $16 burden for homeowners. If Republicans want to cut in other places, let them identify exactly where, Democrats say.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, says both sides are wrong. Other county departments can't stand further cuts and no tax increase is needed, he said, because the $20 million in new school money he's already approved -- a 10 percent increase -- is enough for one year.

"My goal was to work on this over a period of two to three years," Robey said.

If the council raises the tax rate, it will mark the first time the five-member body has done so since 1981, when 6 cents was added to the rate on each $100 of assessed value. (The county executive raised the rate in 1991.) The general property tax rate now stands at $2.59, unchanged since 1991. Robey has proposed a 3-cent increase in the fire property tax.

Merdon admits the GOP plan is academic because the Democrats have three votes to the Republicans' two, but he said "we want to show we can have a viable proposal and not have to raise taxes. We as Republicans, or any group, have to show there is an alternative proposal."

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, scoffs at that, accusing the Republicans of playing politics.

"I stand by what we've done. They're being blatantly political, that's all. They want to have it both ways," Gray said.

Former County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who is a retired county school administrator, backs Robey's view and isn't alone in thinking school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is perhaps the most savvy politician in the group.

"A 10 percent increase is unbelievable. I think they can do whatever they want with 10 percent," he said. "I think for years every [school] budget was reduced and we got by, and we have the best system in the state."

Hickey denies trying to manipulate anyone. He's never tried to be deceptive, he said, insisting that without the $4.8 million Robey cut from his request he could reduce some class sizes, but not all.

"If they wanted to call my bluff, they would have seen all the cuts on that list [carried out]," he said, referring to the new programs he said couldn't be funded without the money Robey refused. "Chuck [Ecker] was a numbers person, not a program person. I'm not going to eliminate old programs to make room for new ones."

The council Republicans had to increase the percentage of their proposed cut to departments other than schools because they did not consider untouchable items such as the $47 million budgeted for interest on bond debt, and the $26 million in cash applied to new capital projects.

A 1 percent cut to the police budget, however, would eliminate $317,000 of the $1.8 million in new funds they are scheduled to receive. That new money is primarily intended to add six officers for a new mobile crime squad, a sliver of the 36 additional officers requested.

Pub Date: 5/26/99

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