Hearing on budget fails to draw many residents

Merdon says there is little to testify about

Howard County

May 03, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Maybe it is the economy, stupid, as Bill Clinton's faithful were urged to remember in his first presidential campaign a decade ago - or maybe it is just the crazy weather, but only a handful of Howard County citizens turned out last night to speak to their County Council about the $824 million county budget for next year.

"It's a tight budget," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican. "There's not much to testify for or against."

Merdon said he and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman are scrutinizing items of $1,000 or more this year, compared with $50,000 and up last year.

And although the county education budget - usually the largest draw - is not up for discussion until a hearing tomorrow morning in the same County Council chambers, last night's crowd contained more county officials than citizens.

Half the speakers came to ask for no cuts to arts grants and programs for the handicapped. Several came to urge support for Howard Community College, and a couple wanted attention paid to police and fire expenses.

County officials were surprised that no one urged the return of $1.7 million in recreation and parks fee receipts that County Executive James N. Robey took to plug other revenue holes this year, though County Council members did get several e-mails on that subject.

Melissa Arnold, director of the county's Tourism Council said how important the $244,440 her group gets from the county is, with tourism down drastically after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Arthur Gold, vice president of the ARC of Howard County, described how his handicapped 26-year-old son depends on county transportation to enable him to work. And a large group of Howard Community College supporters and staff members described their travails linked to state budget cuts while asking that no more funding be withheld.

"You've all been there for us," said Roger N. Caplan, college board chairman. He said the college expected $9.2 million in state funds under an existing formula, only to find it is getting $8.4 million because of budget cuts.

Robey gave the college a 7.9 percent budget increase, not the 17 percent increase requested, said college President Mary Ellen Duncan. That means seven more full-time teachers instead of 11 as enrollment rises.

David Margolis of Scaggsville had a different message, urging the council to cut tens of millions of dollars by eliminating all funding for recreation and parks, selling parkland instead of buying more and eliminating all funding for the community college, the libraries and the Economic Development Authority.

"There's no reason for local government to duplicate and compete" with private groups, he said. And although he acknowledged that his ideas may seem "mean-spirited and callous," he said the county's residents have the wealth and compassion to take care of themselves.

Robey's proposal for fiscal 2003 is about 1.6 percent higher than this year's, and several county departments are getting less money next year to free $16.2 million for county schools.

The executive avoided tax increases, but also withheld cost-of-living pay increases and performance bonuses for county workers. He also took control of $1.7 million worth of recreation and parks money collected from user fees during the past few years to help plug a shortfall this year.

Recreation and parks would get 8 percent less in operating budget funding under the proposal, while public works would get about 5 percent less, with highway resurfacing and bridge replacements delayed in the capital budget as well.

With income tax revenues down much more than anticipated, the county is expecting an $18 million shortfall during the current budget year, which ends June 30. Hiring freezes and cutbacks are expected to make up for about one-third of that, but Robey is asking for authorization for up to $15 million from the Rainy Day Fund.

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