Advisors on spending disagree

Panel's approach at heart of polite but significant discord

Howard County

January 05, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Polite but significant disagreements emerged yesterday among members of a key advisory committee during initial discussions about how much Howard County can afford to spend and borrow for new schools and other projects during fiscal year 2002.

The county is heading into budget-drafting season facing two conflicting circumstances: an expected slowdown in tax revenue growth, and a huge demand for new spending, especially for schools.

As the debut meeting of the Spending Affordability Committee yesterday morning showed, resolving that conflict won't be easy. The panel of county officials and business and community leaders is charged with advising the County Council and county executive about how much the county can spend and borrow without jeopardizing its bond rating or hurting the local economy.

Panel member Peter Rogers, vice president of business development at Micros Systems Inc., urged that the committee recommend spending levels based on the county's fiscal picture. The committee should offer general advice about how much the county can afford to borrow and spend in the next budget, he said, but should leave decisions about how much to spend, and on what, to elected county officials.

"We should remain above where the money's allocated," Rogers said.

Member Patricia Baker, vice president of County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, took issue with this approach, saying it is imperative that the committee take into account the specific needs facing the county.

"The request the school system has put forward on its capital budget is large, and that's going to put pressure on politicians who are going to have to decide where to put the line," she said.

Which of the two approaches the committee takes could help determine its recommendations to the County Council and County Executive James N. Robey, due in February. The committee could discourage heavy new borrowing if it believes that doing so might imperil the county's AAA bond rating, the highest possible.

But if the panel takes into account the county's need for additional classroom space, it could find that the benefits of meeting these funding requests might outweigh the potential fiscal risks involved in higher spending.

Among the school department's budget requests is funding for a 12th county high school, estimated to cost $41 million, to handle soaring enrollments. Parents also are clamoring for a new elementary school in western Howard County to alleviate crowding at Pointers Run Elementary, now about 300 children over capacity.

The county is committed to spending tens of millions of dollars next year to complete Reservoir High School in Fulton, and for a new fire and police emergency radio system, among other things.

Meanwhile, Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, is predicting lower income tax revenue next year as a result of the stock market slowdown, as well as slightly higher property tax revenue.

Until now, he said yesterday, the county has been able to borrow more heavily than many nearby counties without jeopardizing its bond rating because of its impressive property tax and income tax revenue.

The alternative to borrowing more money for school projects, members noted, would be raising local taxes. The county has one of the lowest effective tax rates in the region, Wachs said.

But, members agreed, county elected officials likely will be reluctant to take that step, for fear of angering voters.

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