Council passes Robey budget

Spending package wins unanimous approval

Total plan: $930 million

GOP members shun fight, noting tight economy

May 23, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, bitter partisan bickering marked adoption of Howard County's annual budget, but despite big money troubles and a fast-approaching election this year, that was not repeated yesterday.

The combined package of County Executive James N. Robey's $824 million operating spending plan and the $106.4 million capital budget won 5-0 final approval at an afternoon meeting in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, though the County Council's two Republicans objected to several items.

"I agree with 90 percent of the operating budget and all of the capital budget," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon. Differences emerged over fiscal and philosophical principles, he said, but faced with lower revenues, "I'm certainly not blaming the executive for the budget he submitted."

Western County Republican Allan H. Kittleman was less agreeable, announcing that if the operating and capital budgets had not been joined in one legislative bill, he would have voted "no" on the former. But he, too, emphasized the positive.

"I will pass on sparring on the budget," he said in final remarks. Later, he explained why he didn't criticize Robey for the projected $18 million deficit this year -- the main issue of Republican county executive candidate Steven H. Adler's campaign. To end the year with a balanced budget, Robey will have to use up to $15 million of the county's rainy day fund -- the first use of the fund.

"I didn't see it would be useful. This has been a hard year," Kittleman said.

After the session, Merdon said, "I don't want to be responsible for kicking off election-year fights."

Robey concurred. "I think they dealt with the issues and the facts," he said.

Both Republicans wanted to use $200,000 recovered from the election board budget to begin replenishing the rainy day fund, rather than follow the plan of Robey and other Democrats to hire special education teachers and aides. Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, noted that Robey has promised to propose a way to replenish the fund instead of waiting for surpluses to develop.

The $200,000 "meant more to the school system and to special education kids," Robey said.

Kittleman opposed the Democrats' amendment to add the money to the school budget, but he was on the losing end of a 3-1 vote. He said he would have opposed approval of the entire budget because no proposal for replenishing the fund was presented with the spending plan. Kittleman said he is not against education, but he noted school officials indicated they could get by without the $200,000.

Merdon walked off the podium and did not vote on that amendment. Later he explained, "I'm not going to let anyone pinpoint me that I'm against education."

Two Kittleman amendments were then defeated on 3-2, party-line votes. One amendment would have cut $2.5 million in excise taxes for construction of a road through county property in Ellicott City where a government office complex is to be built, and the second would have trimmed $6,500 from the Board of Elections budget for food and travel.

"We need to demonstrate we're not going to have budgets with all this fluff," he said.

The budget gives about $17 million more to county schools, raised partly from money cut from other county departments such as public works and recreation and parks. The county had no cash surplus, and county workers will get no cost-of-living pay raise, but tax rates weren't increased, either.

Two years ago, despite a cash surplus, the two Republicans claimed they couldn't trust Robey because they said he had gone back on what they felt was an agreement to make several last-minute budget changes. The executive responded that after 34 years in public service, "I've never felt so slandered in my life."

Kittleman and Merdon paid tribute to Lorsung and east Columbia Democrat C. Vernon Gray, who are leaving the council at year's end.

"We'll miss you guys," Merdon said. Gray is "not afraid to put on the boxing gloves. I like that," he added. Lorsung called the Democrats' relationship with the Republicans "collegial and respectful," which, she said, is "important for public confidence."

Gray said the tough economic times have reduced the potential for conflict, but "I have to applaud [Kittleman and Merdon] for being honest" about the budget Robey submitted. "Clearly, there's more trust," he said.

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