Council debates election budget

$2.2 million spending plan would more than double amount used 4 years ago

Howard County

May 10, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Like predators without much prey, Howard County Council members pounced on the tiny county election board's swollen budget in their last scheduled public budget review session yesterday, apparently seeking something to cut in a very lean year.

Council members do not foresee any major changes to County Executive James N. Robey's $824 million spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1, especially after listening to a parade of department heads complaining that they have given up every penny they can spare. A final vote on the budget is scheduled for May 22.

The only change likely, said council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, will be some shuffling of funds because of an extra $4.5 million for school construction projects announced by the state this week. Previous suggestions of finding money to restore school budget cuts for textbooks and special education have faded with education officials' assurances that students would not suffer.

"I don't have any [budget] amendments," Gray said after the meeting in Ellicott City.

Gray said he hopes that interest in the $2.2 million election board budget by the council's two Republicans does not signal an attempt to make major cuts. This year's elections include races for governor, Congress and Circuit Court clerk.

The election board's proposed budget - 140 percent more than its $909,494 budget four years ago - was a subject of intense interest yesterday, although the board's administrator did not attend. Robert J. Antonetti Jr. was absent because of outpatient surgery, said Evelyn M. Purcell, his deputy.

The questions came mostly from Republicans Allan H. Kittleman of the western county and Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City, although Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, also questioned the plan.

"Our reaction when this landed on our desk was, `Oh, my God,'" Wacks said, adding that he immediately cut $200,000.

Major changes included an additional $469,500 for salaries and $365,300 for the rental of larger office space and new voting machines.

Merdon and Kittleman wanted to know why food expenses would rise from $410 in 1998 to $5,000 next year, and why commercial travel costs would jump from zero to $5,000.

Purcell said employees are attending out-of-state professional classes that were not available four years ago. And with more election judges at the polls, 15 more precincts, new voting machines and other changes, more intense training - and thus more food - will be needed to keep workers in the office, Purcell said.

She further explained that since 1998, the state has required a 19 percent pay increase for election workers; and the 2000 census results required the county's election districts to be realigned and the number of polling places to be increased from 85 to 100. Those changes require that new voting cards and several information mailings be sent to Howard's 143,000 registered voters.

Kittleman was not satisfied. "You don't have to go to classes - you want to go to classes," he said. "Are you saying things weren't professional in 1998?"

Purcell replied that she was not saying that.

"There's just an awful lot of spending going on," Merdon said, threatening to oppose the election board's budget.

Merdon also wanted to know if Antonetti would be allowed to hire family members as temporary "contingent employees" - something the state ethics board censured him for doing in his previous job as Prince George's County elections administrator. Purcell said that practice is not uncommon around the state when temporary labor is scarce.

Merdon's questions angered Gray, who has claimed to have been the target of partisan attacks by Republicans. "I'm at the boiling point," he warned.

"We have a history of a gentleman hiring family members. I think we need to ask questions," Merdon said, denying any partisan interest.

Antonetti is a Democrat. His predecessor, longtime county elections administrator Barbara Feaga, is Republican.

Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, stayed out of the debate until it was nearly over.

"If we do make this investment to the degree you require, there better not be any [election] mistakes. There just better not be any mistake," he warned Purcell.

Gray said he is no Antonetti fan, either. "He does not have a clean track record. If I had been on the election board, that would not have been my choice [for administrator]," he said.

Meanwhile, this year's recession-driven refrain from department heads has become familiar to the five council members.

"This is a maintenance budget, and we have no new initiatives," said Marla Hutchinson, deputy social services director, about her agency's budget.

"We'll have to reproduce that speech," Wacks joked, sparking laughter in the George Howard Building hearing room.

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