Tight budget holds tax rate, avoids layoffs

$824 million total has increases for education, safety

`Have to live within our means'

Rainy Day Fund tapped to meet income shortfall

higher assessments help

April 18, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Hewing to his usual cautious fiscal approach, Howard County Executive James N. Robey's $824 million final first-term budget proposal contains no tax increases or layoffs, but denies county schools over $6 million in spending requests.

Like other area executives, Robey blamed the recession for a minimal 1.6 percent spending increase, and a local first - the use of up to $15 million from the Rainy Day Fund to pay this year's bills.

"We saw a spring shower on the horizon when it came to the economy, but it turned into a thunderstorm," Robey said about last spring's projections and the income tax revenue losses that followed.

Despite that, Robey would give schools $16.3 million more to spend - a 5.2 percent increase - plus an additional $1 million for Howard Community College, while simultaneously cutting the rest of county government $3.6 million below this year. A hiring slowdown will keep about 100 county jobs vacant; 143 teachers will be added to help open the new Reservoir High School and keep up with rising enrollments.

No new police officers or firefighters will be hired, and county workers will not receive general cost-of-living pay raises, though the county will absorb a 15 percent health insurance cost increase.

And although tax rates would not rise, increasing assessments would be a major factor in the $14.1 million in added revenue the county expects. Assessments are projected to rise 3.4 percent on average in July. That's about $64 more a year for the owner of a $180,000 home in Howard County.

School officials seemed resigned to the situation and vowed to make the best of it.

"We understand the county's fiscal position. We really do. But we also understand we will have needs that will go unmet," said Sidney L. Cousin, deputy school superintendent.

School board President Jane B. Schuchardt said Robey "had given us a clue" what the increase would be. "Deep down, somehow, I was hoping that I might get $18 million [more]," she said, noting that the County Council has the power to add to the school budget if more funds are found.

One program that is vital, she said, is the initiative to close the performance gap among county students.

Despite state funding cuts for community colleges, Howard Community College President Mary Ellen Duncan said Robey's extra $1 million "will help to meet student growth. We're absolutely thrilled."

Robey said all options - including a tax increase - remained open until last week, but "I couldn't convince myself that a tax increase was needed." Each year must be evaluated as it comes, he said, refusing to make any firm stand for next year, if he wins a second term in November.

"We have to, first and foremost, live within our means," Robey said, adding that he rejected the idea of a tax increase because "to raise taxes in an election year is not a wise thing to do, especially as the state is cutting income taxes."

That stand won praise from Republicans yesterday. Both Republican County Council members endorsed the no-new-taxes approach, as did GOP executive candidate Steven H. Adler, who said he hopes it extends to next year, if Robey is re-elected.

"That's a good sign," said western county Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, who said he is getting complaints now from constituents facing higher property assessments.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, also had no early objections.

"When times are difficult, you've got to realize where you are and do your best."

The only three areas to get more money in the budget, said Robey and Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, are education, $2.2 million for public safety and $1.5 million for this year's two elections.

The public safety funds would pay for continuation of a program that provides one police officer for each county high school, and cover the doubled costs of inmate health care in the county detention center.

County libraries will get $198,000 more, Robey said, but trustees will have to choose whether to use the money to buy books or to open the Savage and Elkridge branches on Sundays.

Library Director Valerie Gross said she will recommend the Sunday openings to provide "service equity" countywide, while looking for other ways to raise money for books.

Wacks said expensive AIDS-fighting drugs have helped double the cost of prisoner health care at the detention center. David White, the school budget director, noted higher fuel costs.

Robey said he wants to find a new, more reliable way to replenish the Rainy Day Fund, which now gets new funds from any surplus. But next fiscal year, no surplus is expected. Robey said he wants a way to keep the fund at 7 percent of county spending, even if it takes several years to reach that level.

Income tax revenues -those most affected by the recession and falling stock prices - are expected to be down $3.8 million from this year. Property taxes, which provide about 35 percent of revenues, are projected to be $21 million higher.

Robey will formally present his budget to the County Council at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building. The council has until June 1 to make changes and adopt a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

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