Council tries to restore budget

Saving money for education means cutting elsewhere

May 17, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The proposed western Howard County golf course appears dead and the development of Western Regional Park could be delayed as the County Council struggles to find money to restore to next fiscal year's education budget.

A final work session on the budget is scheduled tomorrow to hash out the strategy before a formal vote Monday.

In Howard, the County Council can restore money cut from the budget if it finds funds to cover the costs. Since council members say they have no plans to raise taxes this year, they are looking to cut other items in order to restore a portion of the $8.5 million that County Executive James N. Robey cut from the education budget.

The council appeared to close in on a few cuts totaling just less than $1 million during a sometimes intense 3 1/2-hour exchange with school board members yesterday at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. The likely cuts include $250,000 from traffic projects and $175,000 from the general contingency fund.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, suggested another source of income to make up for the cuts -- pushing back the three-year Western Regional Park project in Glenwood. The first stage was to begin in July.

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said he hopes to restore $2 million of the $8.5 million that Robey cut.

Merdon and western county Republican Councilman Allan H. Kittleman said they can get $1.1 million by borrowing that much from a three-year project to upgrade the county's emergency radio system, which is scheduled to receive $17.5 million next fiscal year. They said such a move would not delay the project.

Robey said later that he's against taking money from the radio project.

"That touches a nerve with me," the former Howard police chief said. "I'm not going to jeopardize the life of one more police officer or firefighter. It's been delayed too long already."

Golf course gone

Robey conceded the demise of the proposed publicly owned West Friendship golf course, even as he prepares for a meeting today with owners of several private golf courses open to the public in the western county. The county executive wanted tentative approval of a public course to help force the private owners to provide more low-cost golf for teens and senior citizens.

"Obviously the golf course is DOA [dead on arrival]," Robey said. "I'm disappointed. I guess I did a poor job selling the golf course to the County Council."

Tense session

Yesterday's long session touched on several sore points. Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said he was aghast at the school board's resistance when the board's $125,000 portion of the cost of a performance review was discussed last week.

Board member Stephen C. Bounds accused Robey of not living up to his budget promises, a charge the executive vehemently denied.

"You need to understand the budget we submitted was precisely what the county executive said he wanted," Bounds told the council. "We got his agreement to fund the [teachers'] salary before we negotiated that salary. After the fact, he said he thought the salary would cost $10 million." It cost $16.6 million.

"That's simply not true," Robey countered, saying that he agreed to education increases that he calculated would cost $26 million -- exactly what he provided -- based on early estimates of a 3 percent pay raise for teachers. The 5 percent pay raise the board negotiated later was reasonable, he said. But he insisted that there is enough money in the school budget to pay for the increase as well as the class reductions planned for first and second grades, despite his cuts.

School officials say higher transportation and insurance costs are making that tougher to do.

Parents upset by warnings

Guzzone said the board has upset parents during the past two years with dire warnings of vital service cuts, but it hasn't cut anything except paper expenses. "All we're doing is getting people riled up over 3 percent of the budget," he said. "We ought to figure out a better way of doing this."

Others were more focused on programs than on the bottom line.

"I'm not thinking about amounts," said council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat. "I'm thinking about the nature of the proposed cuts."

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