Robey hears budget requests

Executive tells residents, department heads: Don't expect full-funding

Higher taxes an option

March 13, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With more state budget cuts a growing fear, Howard County Executive James N. Robey's annual budget hearing last night was a time for lowered expectations, if not lowered hopes.

Finding the money for all the requests for next year is "mathematically impossible," Robey told a crowd of just over 100 in the County Council chambers in Ellicott City. "If you have `fully fund' in your remarks, take it out," he bluntly warned the 24 speakers.

Most of those supplicants came to plead for the usual causes - schools, libraries, Howard Community College and neighborhood capital projects such as road repairs and sound barriers that require county matching funds.

FOR THE RECORD - In articles published Sunday and Thursday in the Howard County edition of The Sun, the impact of a local income tax increase from a rate of 2.45 percent to the legal limit of 3.20 percent on a taxpayer with a $100,000 net income was incorrect. An income tax increase of that magnitude would cost a resident with that income an extra $750 a year. In addition, a 10.25-cent increase in the county's property tax rate would cost the owner of a house worth $200,000 an extra $205.

Werner Gruhl of Columbia told Robey that Howard residents are "one of the most prosperous populations on Earth. It is time we all count our blessings and face up to a tax increase" that is "well worth paying for. Have courage," he told Robey.

But Dennis Chase, also of Columbia, told the executive not to raise taxes.

"Yeah, I can pay more taxes, but do I really need to pay more taxes?" he asked. "I believe our tax system is broken and we need to fix it. What about the working man?" he said, noting rising gasoline prices.

As he nears the mid-April announcement of his proposed budget, Robey faces a difficult situation - perhaps even tougher than the $18 million shortfall predicted last fiscal year that he barely avoided - and a far cry from the double-digit cash surpluses the county enjoyed during most of his first term.

Robey warned Friday that just to fund built-in commitments for the budget year starting July 1 - including a 4 percent pay raise for teachers - would require raising income taxes to the legal limit of 3.20 percent and the property tax rate by 10.25 cents, though he did not say he would actually propose those remedies.

For a family with a $100,000 net income and a house worth $200,000, that would mean $280 more in taxes, not counting increases from higher state assessments or higher Columbia Association lien fees.

Robey said he is facing a $50.3 million gap between expected revenues and operating budget requests. The school board alone is seeking $38 million more - far above the $23.4 million increase the county expects in revenues.

Donald Cook, treasurer of the Howard County Education Association, came to speak for the 4 percent raises the county's 5,400 teachers and school staff negotiated last year, when they got no cost-of-living increase.

"Honor the [school] board contract," he asked Robey, aware that a decade ago - in the last recession - former Executive Charles I. Ecker did not honor a similar deal.

Parents from 49-year old Guilford Elementary came to plead for renovations and expansion for their school, while Sue Nass and a similar group from Patapsco Middle School and Hollifield Station Elementary in Ellicott City talked about how crowded their relatively new buildings are. They want the extra assistant principal in each that the school board has requested of Robey.

Library Director Valerie Gross said she needs 10 new workers to keep up with a 50 percent growth in annual visits, and Roger Caplan, Howard Community College head, said he needs five new full-time instructors to keep up with enrollment growth.

John Finamore of Glenelg came with seven senior citizens to ask that the long-planned Western County Senior Center stay on schedule to open in 2005. "We trust it will stay on schedule under the fiscal reality you face," he said.

School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke asked for $88.7 million in capital projects and $330.6 million for the operating budget.

"Jim, you and I know that the needs are real," he said, both for bricks and mortar improvements and to achieve O'Rourke's main academic goal - the elimination of all achievement gaps by 2007.

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