Few arrive to talk money

Most at public hearing speak in defense of HCC's budget request

Schools not a hot topic

Awareness of fiscal woes may have kept pleas for funds down

March 13, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Facing his most difficult budget year by far, Howard County Executive James N. Robey also faced last night perhaps the smallest group of constitutents at any annual budget hearing.

The scene was in sharp contrast to last year's hearing, when public school boosters filled the County Council chambers in Ellicott City with children holding balloons and signs and lobbying for money for a 12th high school.

Roughly half the crowd of 85 people last night came to defend the $15 million Howard Community College budget request, and members of Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia hired a bus to bring them to press their case to fill two frozen jobs there. None of the 16 people who rose to speak were there to defend the entire $292 million school budget. One speaker asked for money to pay for Sunday hours at the Savage and Elkridge library branches.

The only public school advocates were Glenelg High School teacher Kathy Watson, who urged that longevity pay raises for teachers not be frozen this year, though that is a school board decision. Five school psychologists urged more money for their area, and especially to help autistic children, whose numbers in county schools have tripled since 1996.

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said he was surprised at the light turnout, given the county's tough fiscal situation for next year. The hearing was the last chance for the public to speak directly with the executive before the budget is announced April 15.

Robey said people have not been contacting him about the county's fiscal woes, so he "did not expect a big crowd."

Ruth Ellen Ross, who came to urge more staffing at Florence Bain, may have revealed the reason for the light turnout when she said, "We know of your budget problems and our constraints." Anne Brusca, a retired social worker, said the two staff positions at the center need to be filled because "there are people sitting in the lobby all day with nothing to do."

The community college speakers said HCC has lost $1 million in state funding and was forced to impose a $5-a-credit tuition increase for next year. That will make up $350,000, said college President Mary Ellen Duncan, so the college - which plans to open a new instructional building next fall - can't stand any more cuts.

"We are in a critical financial situation," said Roger Caplan, president of the college's board of trustees.

Some people e-mailed their comments to Robey before the hearing. Those requests included pleas for higher teacher pay, better historic preservation, sidewalks near the new Meadowbrook Park in Ellicott City, better maintenance of grass soccer fields and more traffic-slowing measures in several communities.

Before he even gets to next year's budget, Robey must pay for the rest of the current budget year, which ends June 30. Lower-than-expected revenues have created a projected $18 million shortfall, with only about one-third expected to be made up by hiring limits and belt-tightening. The rest must come from the county's $32 million Rainy Day Fund.

"This is a year that will require all of us - myself, fellow elected officials and you, our residents - to face stark realities connected with these diminishing revenues," Robey told constituents in a prepared statement on the county's computer Web site.

Numerically, Robey's problem is simple. Budget requests for next year exceed projected revenues by $30.5 million - not counting any possible cost-of-living pay increases.

The largest chunk of that, $18.4 million, is for schools and Howard Community College, while debt interest and higher elections board expenses acount for another $1.9 million. Built-in increases, such as higher health insurance premiums and longevity pay raises make up most of the rest.

To help compensate, Robey has deleted $17.8 million in cash that would have been used for one-time capital budget projects. Beyond that, he will either have to cut more from the requests, or raise taxes - not a happy choice in an election year.

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