Robey, GOP debate budget

Executive says tax boost a must for adding schools

`We whacked a lot of programs'

Spending cuts can cover new needs, Republicans say

Howard County

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

Western County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman's words brought a red-faced Howard County Executive James N. Robey out of his seat on the stage of Bushy Park Elementary school's auditorium Monday night.

"We lost $40 million [in future income tax revenues]. Where did that go?" Kittleman, a Republican who voted against higher income taxes, asked the more than 150 parents there to debate their crowded, 27-year- old school's future.

Amid partisan bickering over the county's continued budget woes and the big income tax increase championed by Democrat Robey, the executive is trimming government spending to get through yet another leaner-than-expected year, he said. His fight to get state legislators to approve a higher real estate transfer tax to pay for school construction is heightening that tension.

After Kittleman's comments, the county executive told the parents he had spent two hours that day considering budget cuts because of lower revenue estimates that have left local and state governments short of cash.

"We whacked a lot of programs," Robey told the crowd, adding that the choice for county residents is more new schools or no new taxes, but not both.

What upset him about Kittleman's comments, he said later, is that "he makes it sound like we did something wrong" with the public's money.

"This has been a lean, frugal government," he said, repeating what he told the crowd that night - that the county has poured most of its new money into education, hiring 1,652 school employees during his tenure, compared to 35 police officers and 43 other county workers, some grant-funded.

"Last year was the first time income tax revenues came in less than the previous year," Robey said. "We're at the mercy of the [national] economy and the state."

Republicans point to higher government spending under Robey, contending that the county can cover the needs with spending cuts.

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said the revenue increase from the county's higher income tax rate is not gone, but it likely will be smaller than previously thought.

Wacks said the county had hoped to collect $224 million in income taxes this fiscal year - from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004. Instead, he said, $200 million is now more likely. Similarly, expectations were for nearly $260 million from the income tax next fiscal year, but $240 million now seems more likely.

Robey had asked his department heads to prepare three possible scenarios for cuts - plans to save 3 percent, 5 percent or 10 percent of their annual budgets. Because it is still early in the fiscal year, and with $9.5 million held back from proposed pay raises, the county will not need to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, Robey said.

For now, the executive said, he is trimming things that the public will likely not see, such as professional travel, training, library books, supplies and ma- terials. Also, open jobs are being left vacant, said Raquel Sanudo, the chief administrative officer.

"Everyone took a cut," Robey said, adding that he plans to meet with his department heads over the next several weeks to implement the reductions.

Kittleman, who hopes to succeed Robey as county executive, said he wants to learn where the big income tax revenue increase has gone.

"That's an awful lot of money to say it's there at the end of May and June and now say it's gone. I have great respect for Ray [Wacks], and I have trouble believing he could be so far wrong in such a short time," Kittleman said.

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said his feelings are similar.

"The county raises more than enough money to do what they need to do," he said. "I don't want to see Howard County go down the road Prince George's County went down with [former governor and county executive] Parris Glendening. When does it end?" he said, referring to a $100 million shortfall Glendening left his county in 1992.

Robey had a sharp reply: "I guess he [Miller] was chosen to give the political quote of the day. Either he supports education or he doesn't," Robey said, noting that he saw Miller at ribbon cuttings for the two new schools the county opened this year - Folly Quarter Middle and Bellows Spring Elementary.

Miller was "grinning from ear to ear," Robey said. "He's got a lot of nerve even showing up."

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