Estimated debt for the budget seems on wane

Related issue involves Rainy Day Fund proposal

Parties disagree over amount

Accord reached on bill on animal nuisances fines

July 24, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's projected budget debt appears to be shrinking as a County Council divided along partisan lines prepares to vote on a related issue - a Republican-proposed charter change on replenishing the county's Rainy Day Fund.

Meanwhile, the council worked out changes in a bill proposing higher animal nuisance fines at a work session late yesterday in Ellicott City.

The original animal nuisance bill mandated sharply higher fines for animal nuisance complaints, but amendments discussed yesterday likely will change that before a final vote Monday, the council's last meeting before September.

Fines in the amendment would range from $50 to $200, double the current rates, but far from the $200 to $500 levels first proposed in the bill sponsored by Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat. Other changes would provide for a warning after one complaint and would allow anonymous complaints, too. Western County Republican Allan H. Kittleman also requested an annual statistical report on animal complaints.

On the financial front, council members appeared to agree to disagree after a brief discussion yesterday, as cost-saving efforts aimed at reducing the withdrawal from the decade-old Rainy Day Fund seem to be bearing fruit.

What began last spring as a projected $18 million shortfall because of falling revenues had shrunk to an estimated $12 million by May, when a budget for the new fiscal year was adopted.

Now, county officials and Republican candidates are saying that the final amount needed from the $28 million Rainy Day Fund might be less, though they disagree on the amount.

Accusing Democratic County Executive James N. Robey with lessening the debt to make himself look good, Republican Steven H. Adler claims that the eventual shortfall will shrink to $7 million.

Robey said it likely will be under $12 million, but he said no one knows for sure until state income tax distributions are made in September. He said Adler is playing the issue for political advantage.

"They don't want to tell anybody [the real figure]," Adler said.

His campaign should get the credit for whatever cost-cutting Robey claims because his criticism pushed the administration into saving money, Adler said.

Robey dismissed Adler's charges that he is manipulating the shortfall for political gain. The $7 million figure that Adler mentioned is pure speculation, he said.

"Steve Adler isn't even close," Robey said. "It's political rhetoric. He needs to start looking at reality."

The County Council proposal by Kittleman and Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon would ask voters to change the County Charter to require placement of at least 0.5 percent of the previous year's budget into the Rainy Day Fund unless the council specifically allows an exception. This year, that would have amounted to $2 million.

Current law on fund

Current law requires money for the fund to come from surpluses that may occur in the future.

Democrats charge that the idea is a partisan political move to help Adler keep his major campaign issue - last budget year's projected shortfall - before the voters as the November election nears. Republicans said they are merely trying to ensure the fund's viability through prolonged bad economic times. Because the council includes three Democrats to two Republicans, the bill likely will fail.

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, told the Republicans at yesterday's meeting that the county is required by law to appoint a Charter Review Commission by March 1. She argued it would make sense to allow that group to review the issue along with all others.

"That will provide for a much fuller and substantive public process and debate," she said.

Wanted in this election

But Kittleman said he and Merdon do not want to wait until the 2004 elections to place such a charter change before county voters.

"The voters have three months to be educated," Kittleman said. "I think we should at least give folks a chance to vote this up or down."

Merdon said that although he is not advocating a tax increase, a future government required to add money to the fund in a poor revenue year could raise taxes to get the money. The proposed change also would allow the council to exempt the county from contributing to the fund in particularly harsh circumstances. The fund is to equal 7 percent of the previous year's budget.

The politically tinged debate over the Rainy Day Fund points up the uncertainty over future revenues and expenses.

Republicans have noted the authorization to remove up to $15 million from the fund to argue that another year like the last one would wipe out the $28 million fund.

But now Adler, who has blamed Robey for alleged poor fiscal management, is charging that Robey is cutting spending to make himself look good by limiting the Rainy Day Fund withdrawal.

"I feel our campaign is making a difference," Adler said. "They have been working feverishly on closing the [budget] gap. I believe they are working harder because they're in a tough campaign."

Robey dismissed Adler's claims as political rhetoric.

"I think the fact that it's an election year sums it up," the executive said about the proposed Rainy Day Fund charter amendment. "I promised in my budget message I would send down a plan [to replenish the fund]. We're still working on that."

Raymond S. Wacks, county budget director, said that until then, the county is, and has been, saving whatever it can. Stock market declines will not show up in tax revenue returns for another year, he said.

"We generally clamped down on spending," Wacks said.

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