Robey proposes a `hold-the-line' budget for 2002

Schools, public safety emphasized with no general tax rise

`Focus on basics this year'

April 18, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Using a combination of higher fire taxes and permit fees, Howard County Executive James N. Robey has proposed an $811.2 million budget calculated to push schools and public safety ahead without a general tax increase.

Robey is proposing to spend $44.9 million, or 7.3 percent, more in county funds than is being spent this year - with two-thirds of that extra money going to schools. Despite that increase, he described his proposal as a conservative "hold-the-line" budget.

"There's no glitzy programs, no major enhancements. We were going to focus on basics this year," the former police chief said before formally presenting his third spending plan to the County Council last night.

The proposed budget would add $79.25 to the annual tax bill of the owner of a typical $150,000 Howard County home.

Robey called for giving county schools nearly $28 million more than last year - $5 million less than the school board requested. Much of the extra money would go for built-in pay and health insurance increases and to pay for 332 new employees.

That includes 136 teachers and 113 teaching assistants needed for special-education children. Five firefighters are included, and the county police would get 10 officers - but not until halfway through the budget year that starts July 1.

General county employees would receive a 3.8 percent pay increase, compared with 4 percent for police officers and 6 percent that county teachers are due.

The Robey proposal received a positive response from a bipartisan majority of the five-member County Council, which has the final say on the spending. Three of five council members indicated general agreement with Robey's plan.

School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said that combined with state money he had sought, but didn't get, Robey's budget "leaves us about $7 million short." The next step, he said, is to prepare a list of potential cuts for presentation to the County Council and the school board.

In Howard, the council has the power to add to the education budget if it finds a source of revenue. The council has until June to make its final spending decisions.

O'Rourke, the former Pittsford, N.Y., superintendent who has vowed a cooperative relationship with Robey, said, "I'm disappointed, but I'm a realist." He said there was "nothing in there that was fluff," but added that "I'm not without some appreciation of what County Executive Robey has been through. I'm very grateful of his commitment to education."

School board member Virginia W. Charles said she had expected Robey's action but still was upset. "My concern is that it almost completely deletes every new initiative in the education budget," she said.

For county taxpayers, the executive's proposed 7.3 percent spending increase means higher fire taxes, higher property tax bills because of rising assessments and $2.5 million worth of increased builders' fees. The fire tax would rise 1.75 cents for $100 of assessed value. It was last increased in 1999, when it rose 3 cents.

For the owner of a $150,000 house, the higher assessments will add $53 to property tax bills. The fire tax increase - which would bring in $4 million for the fire department - would add another $26.25 in taxes, said Raymond S. Wacks, the budget director.

The new permit fees would add $300 to $400 to the cost of a new house of 2,000 to 3,000 square feet, Wacks said.

Robey said he warned a group of builders last week that fee increases were coming. Wacks said the raises are to cover rising costs for processing the permits.

Thomas Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said yesterday he was among the group warned by Robey and had no complaint.

"He says he has rising costs," Ballentine said, noting that any cost increase would be passed through to consumers. "The only fiscally responsible thing is to meet the costs."

That's not likely to affect demand much, because the real estate market is so hot in Howard County that buyers are typically paying more than the asking price for existing homes, and are lining up to buy new ones months before they are finished.

"When you compare fees to adjacent counties, fees are less in Howard County," said builder Harry "Chip" Lundy, president and chief executive officer of the Williamsburg Group, a local company that builds homes in several metropolitan counties.

"We've been supplementing the cost of providing that service," Wacks said.

Robey said he was especially cautious in planning for next year because of volatile economic signals. They could mean that revenue projections are iffy, he said.

"We have gone as far as we can go in stretching our revenue estimates," he said. "I'm the one ultimately responsible" if revenues drop off, noting that several County Council members and school board members have suggested that Wacks is being too conservative.

To further guard against a downturn, he said, any new hires must be cleared by the county's chief administrative officer.

Based on early comments from council members, Robey's plan appears to be on solid ground.

"I wholeheartedly agree with increases in the development fees that bring them in line with the costs," said Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said he would not automatically oppose the increases if the fees are to satisfy higher costs and if the fire department needs the extra funding. As for schools, "I need to talk to John O'Rourke," he said.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who two years ago backed a 2-cent property tax increase to aid county schools, said he is not planning a repeat this year.

"I'm not looking toward adding money back," he said.

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