Budget deflates schools' request

$35 million sought in new spending pared to $26.5 million

`Reasonable and prudent'

April 18, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Despite a 10 percent rise in spending with most new money going to schools, Howard County education officials are singing the blues over County Executive James N. Robey's proposed $754.4 million operating budget.

Unless the County Council replaces some money, school officials will get $8.5 million less than the $35 million in new money they requested -- or a total of $247.4 million in county funding. That still translates into 12 percent more for schools, according to the budget Robey presented to the council last night.

And although county revenues are projected to rise again next fiscal year, Robey said Friday's stock market plunge "scared the dickens out of me." Raymond S. Wacks, county budget director, said market gyrations shouldn't change his predictions of an 8 percent rise in income tax collections.

Robey's second proposed operating budget calls for no tax increases, except for water and sewer fees, and provides record amounts of money for everything from more sediment inspectors to -- starting in January -- 16 new police officers and 15 more firefighters.

Taxpayers would have to pay more for public water and sewer services -- $50 a year for a family of four. And mild assessment increases would raise homeowners' property tax bills -- $31 to $41 a year for houses worth $150,000 to $200,000.

But Robey said he was pleased to have about $41 million in new cash to spend on programs, plus a $27 million surplus to bolster the county's building program.

"These are very good days for Howard County," Robey said in a speech prepared for delivery to the County Council last night. He is proud, he said, of devoting 60 percent of new spending to county schools, granting educators a record $26.5 million increase.

That's enough to pay for a 5 percent pay increase for teachers, who will get an additional 1 percent from the state; more elementary school class-size reductions; school equity programs; and $125,000 for an outside performance review of education.

But while Police Chief Wayne Livesay said he is pleased with getting half of what he requested, school officials are not happy about getting 97.5 percent of their total request.

Not enough?

"I think we presented a budget that truly met the academic welfare of the students in our system and was very responsive to the needs the community was expressing," said school board Chairman Sandra H. French. "I'm fearful that it [Robey's proposal] is not enough to do what he is saying [it will do]."

Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said he "didn't expect the cut to be that deep. I thought a maximum of $5 million."

Hickey, too, said he doubts there is enough to pay for the major changes Robey said he wants to provide -- class-size reductions, pay increases and equity funding.

"We'll have to compare our arithmetic. His doesn't compute," Hickey said.

But Robey said he warned the school board in December that "I hope the request would be reasonable in terms of what I could provide. They chose to ignore that recommendation."

`Reasonable and prudent'

He called his school budget proposal "reasonable and prudent," and said the only way he could have done more and also provide for the needs of other departments would be to raise taxes.

Robey, a Democrat, said he's not willing to propose that in such good times when the county is running a surplus. "Not while I'm in town," he said.

County Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said, "It's too early to eliminate anything. Altogether, it seems like quite a fair budget," but the council must see how the school cuts would affect specific programs. "The board asked for more, they got more and they got cut more," she said.

Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said, "I can sympathize with Jim because we don't have unlimited resources. I don't support increasing taxes."

Last year, Robey raised the county fire tax 2 cents per $100 of assessed value, but this year that wasn't necessary, he said.

"If the roof is leaking and you want to paint the house, what do you do first? You fix the roof," he said. The school board can wait, for example, to reduce class sizes in middle and high school grades, he said.

The County Council, which has until June to adopt a budget, may restore the education cuts if members find a way to pay for them. Last year, the Democrat-controlled council raised the property tax rate 2 cents, to $2.61 per $100 of assessed value, to restore about $2 million to schools.

More police officers

Under Robey's proposal, county police would get an additional $5.5 million to pay for 16 new officers, a 7 percent pay increase and four new civilian employees -- including two new county animal shelter workers to allow the shelter to be open every Saturday.

Livesay said he's "tickled to death" at getting the new people. With a recruiting class of 15 officers graduating tonight and 15 more recruits starting by June, the chief says his department should be well-staffed.

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