County seeks ideas for savings

Leaders brainstorm at daylong session

Sharing of facilities proposed

Howard County

December 04, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Money-saving ideas were the currency at a daylong Howard County government brainstorming seminar yesterday in Clarksville, and many participants seemed to have one.

Could the county have one shared cable television production facility, for example, instead of separate studios for government, county schools and Howard Community College? How about a unified print shop?

Could the school board charge parents for their children's use of school buses, asked Sandra H. French, the board chairman. "Why couldn't transportation be self-supporting?" she added. Buses cost $11 million a year to operate, said board member Courtney Watson.

Could money be saved if the schools shared health insurance coverage with general government? Should the county hire private firms to operate the detention center, repair computers or to clean and maintain schools?

The seven-hour conference, organized by County Executive James N. Robey, concluded with plans for committees that will examine ways to combine efforts and save money in purchasing, technology, financial and human services, said Victoria Goodman, county public information officer.

Several state legislators also had ideas, such as Republican Del. Gail H. Bates, who said she is drafting a bill that would strip the County Council of the power to restore funds cut from the education budget each year - a change Robey said he would welcome.

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said he is considering a bill that would authorize the school board to borrow money to build schools if the public approves a referendum, instead of depending on county government for the money.

After pushing through a big income tax increase last spring, Robey said he is not considering another general tax increase for next fiscal year. But he and Raymond S. Wacks, the county's budget director, said Howard, as other local and the state governments, faces a long period of slow revenue growth. Without changes, a budget deficit will appear, beginning in 2007.

Because of lower-than-expected revenues, Robey said, he has ordered a 3 percent budget cut for next fiscal year that will take $1.1 million each from county police and public works, $446,000 from Howard Community College, $3.1 million from schools, and reduce the county library's new acquisitions by $300,000.

"You can't spend it if you don't have it," said Robey, a Democrat. "Next year's [expected] revenues are not enough to fund the current county government."

He agreed with County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, that elected officials should try to debate the issues without allowing them to deteriorate into personal disputes. "That doesn't help. We all care about Howard County," Kittleman said.

The meeting, Robey said, was held to "just sit down and talk to each other to see if there's a better way of doing the citizens' business." As part of that charge, he asked the more than 50 elected and appointed participants to "take the gloves off," and at least one person did.

School budget officer David White said his 28 years in government has taught him that "one of the things that has held up changes in this area is mistrust, to be honest. A lot of county government feels the school system is getting most of their money - pay raises," and that the two bureaucracies protect their immediate interests.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said the task now will be to ensure that the potential savings "don't get lost with the bureaucrats" who sometimes resist change.

Robey said he intends to "force the bureaucracy aside" because "there will not be a return to the days of $25 million or $30 million surpluses."

The gathering featured two small concrete changes that Robey said would save up to $100,000 a year. Police Chief Wayne Livesay said that starting in January, officers will no longer write reports on property damage vehicle accidents, and Fire Chief Joe Herr said the county will use volunteers instead of firefighters on overtime pay to inspect and install child safety seats.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, suggested reconvening in three to five months to monitor progress. "The good thing about budget cuts is it forces us to look at these things," he said.

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