Ehrlich budget has more aid for counties

Plan cuts from roads, gives more in education

Overall Howard gain $11.3 million

Some complaining of broken promises

Howard County

January 22, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed budget would cut state aid to local governments in the Baltimore region almost $60 million for some purposes, including transportation, but would add more than that amount in increased education, library and other aid, leaving each jurisdiction with more state money overall.

The net gains range from almost $1 million in Anne Arundel County to $16.7 million in Baltimore. Based on that, Republicans say, the governor is keeping his promise not to cut state aid to localities.

Democrats say counties would have to find ways to replace the state aid for local transportation spending that Ehrlich proposes taking away.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens expressed a hope, shared by other local leaders, "that this will be the sum total" of aid cuts, said her spokesman Matt Diehl.

Baltimore County would have a net gain of $14 million resulting in part from a $24 million increase for schools and libraries, but it would lose $11.7 million in highway funding that County Executive James T. Smith said would have to be made up. Using county revenues to plug those gaps would mean less for other things.

Baltimore would get $16.7 million more state aid overall because of $18.6 million in education and library funding but would lose $15 million in highway maintenance money.

Leaders of county governments are taking a conciliatory approach.

"I think the governor made an effort to minimize the cuts on local governments," Smith said, adding that he is "disappointed" that campaign promises not to make cuts weren't kept.

"The highway user funds we're going to have to make up. We have to have repairs and improvements to roads and do snow removal, particularly in older neighborhoods," he said.

If approved by the General Assembly, the plan will mean $6.1 million in aid cuts for Howard County but an overall gain of $11.3 million, according to state and county officials.

That would mean more for Howard's school system but less for highway maintenance and Howard Community College, and tougher choices for County Executive James N. Robey as he prepares his spending plan for the year that will start July 1.

Robey too, remains optimistic.

"I was never naive enough to believe that we wouldn't be impacted in some way, shape or form," he said. "I guess I'm breathing somewhat of a sigh of relief that it's only [$6 million]."

Robey said at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week that he expects about $30 million in new revenues next year but has nearly $60 million in new requests to sift through, including $34.4 million from the school board.

"The bottom line is we had $30 million [in new revenues]. Now we have $24 million," said Howard budget director Raymond S. Wacks, who is planning Robey's budget proposal.

The proposed reductions for Howard pale beside those of Baltimore ($16.1 million), Baltimore County ($15.3 million), and Anne Arundel County ($12.1 million). Harford would lose $5.6 million and Carroll $4.6 million. Each of those counties would get more money overall from the state, however.

Interpretations of Ehrlich's proposal depend on political affiliation.

Howard County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said the cuts are "a significant problem, especially when we were under the impression from the governor that he was going to hold the county harmless."

Things could get much worse, Guzzone said, if the slot machine legislation the governor wants doesn't pass. Guzzone, like Smith and Robey, is a Democrat. Ehrlich is a Republican.

Republican state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman said that "every county in the state is getting more [money], so I think [Ehrlich has] 100 percent kept his promise."

Howard County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, derided Guzzone's view. "Funny government math is you get an increase and you call it a cut."

State Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she's not taking sides for now. The highway money loss is a major concern, she said.

Hollinger and Kittleman both noted that the General Assembly session is young and that if slot machines at racetracks (the revenue from which is estimated at $395 million annually) aren't approved, anything can happen.

Howard's potential losses come in three categories, according to a state chart: $4.3 million in highway user funds, $1.2 million in unspecified "other programs" and a new administrative charge related to running the local state property assessment office.

The major gain is for education and libraries, for which the county would get $14.8 million more. But based on proposed reductions in aid to four-year colleges, Howard Community College would lose $338,000 this year and $700,000 next fiscal year, said college Vice President Lynn Coleman.

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