GOP loses on plan to change Rainy Day

Council members vote 3-2 to keep the fund as it is

Bill to raise animal fines OK'd

Howard County

July 30, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

County Council Democrats voted yesterday to rebuff a Republican attempt to replenish the government's Rainy Day Fund by changing the County Charter.

The bill failed on a 3-2 party-line vote. It would have placed the issue on the November ballot for county voters. Charter amendments require a super-majority of four votes to pass.

A measure to raise fines for animal nuisance violations passed with no debate and 5-0 unanimity during a brief legislative session - the last council meeting until September.

Members of each party got in a last word on the Rainy Day Fund issue before its predictable death.

"I urge my colleagues to support this good idea to give the voters of Howard County a chance to vote on this," said Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican.

Kittleman and Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, were the only supporters.

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said it makes more sense to allow that issue, along with other possible changes to the charter, to be examined next spring by a legally mandated Charter Review Commission.

That, she said, would be "a more extensive process and would provide more information and opportunity for people" to consider the changes.

Both Republicans complimented Lorsung, who is retiring after this term, for studying their proposal and seriously considering it.

The argument over the Rainy Day Fund has become a partisan election-year issue, although the council's two Republicans said they had no such motive.

Merdon and Kittleman's proposal would have required a referendum in November on whether to change the County Charter to require that if the fund drops below the required 7 percent of the previous year's general fund, it would be replenished by at least 0.5 percent a year.

Current law says the fund will be refilled with surpluses, when they occur.

They said the county cannot wait until a scheduled review of the charter begins next spring, because revenues are likely to remain low, and the $28 million fund cannot afford to handle too many years of withdrawals.

But council Democrats felt that the Republicans wanted a campaign issue to help Steven H. Adler, GOP candidate for county executive, who has repeatedly criticized County Executive James N. Robey for allowing a deficit in the budget year that ended June 30.

After yesterday's meeting, Kittleman and Merdon said it is a dead issue on the council, but could come up in the campaign.

Robey's budget director, Raymond S. Wacks, projected an $18 million shortfall, but spending cuts trimmed that to an estimated $12 million by late May. Now Robey says it likely will be less, but Wacks said the total will not be known for sure until late September, when final state income tax distributions are made.

Robey asked for - and received - council authorization to remove up to $15 million from the fund, claiming that although a sharp downturn in revenue was expected, no one expected as steep a decline as occurred. He agreed at budget adoption time in May that the county should move to replenish the fund without waiting for surpluses to do the job. He said he would propose such a plan, but has not done so.

Adler has charged Robey with wasting money on such things as global positioning satellite locators for county snowplows and a new government office complex in Ellicott City.

The animal control issue created much less rancor.

The new law doubles the fine for a first offense from $25 to $50 and fines can go up to $200. That's much less than the $200-$500 range that the sponsor, Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, had proposed.

Also included in the final bill is a provision allowing people to file complaints without filling out a formal affidavit, and another providing for a warning notice when a complaint is filed.

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