Robey's budget hearing draws little notice despite hot issues

21 speakers request additional spending

no one asks for less

Howard County

December 17, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

If the weather outside had been frightful, Howard County Executive James N. Robey said last night, he would have understood why so few people attended his annual public hearing on the county budget in Ellicott City.

"I would suspect from the significant number of empty seats, it was sleeting or snowing outside, but it's not," he told a sparse crowd of fewer than 100 people -- the vast majority of them veteran advocates for the public schools, fast-growing Howard Community College and the county's popular library system.

No one among the 21 speakers came to ask for less spending, despite months of contention over a sharp local income tax increase.

Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, speculated that since public school boosters had turned out in force last month to help persuade local state legislators to approve new taxes to finance school construction, there was not as much reason to come out last night. "They know it's out of his [Robey's] hands," she said.

School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke told the executive at the hearing that he has been faced "with the most excruciating decisions" in his four years in Howard County in compiling a budget request for next fiscal year because of the county's fiscal crisis.

"A child has only one shot at third grade. By `putting off' funding for essential programs, we penalize that third-grader, not just for a year, but for a lifetime," O'Rourke said.

Joseph R. Staub Jr., president of the county teachers union, urged Robey to include enough money to pay the county's 5,600 school employees the 6 percent raise they negotiated two years ago, despite its $24 million cost. Without it, he said, the county is slipping farther down the salary scale list of Maryland counties.

And Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard Democrat, said all-day kindergarten is vital to helping children achieve their full potential, citing impressive gains in reading made by children in Montgomery County's all-day program.

Robey and Raymond S. Wacks, the budget director, have said repeatedly that the county faces a difficult budget squeeze despite the 30 percent rate increase in the local income tax that will take effect Jan. 1.

Income tax revenue that declined last fiscal year for the first time in Howard County opened a potential $20 million hole in the current year's budget, meaning revenue projections for next year must be revised downward, too.

Robey has frozen hiring and ordered his department heads to cut spending this year, including $3.1 million in school funding and $1.1 million each from police and public works, to help compensate.

But Wacks has said the growing demands for more schools and teachers, together with sharply inflated fixed costs such as health insurance, are pushing the county toward another crisis around 2007, when revenues could again fall below spending. Borrowing for school construction could nearly double debt interest payments by then, he has warned.

Mary Ellen Duncan, president of Howard Community College, testified last night that enrollment for spring is up 9 percent, and Howard's tuition of $90 a credit is the state's highest. She expects more tuition increases, however, and urged no more cuts in county funds, since the current reductions have precluded paying part-time faculty more, or replacing computers.

"We are falling behind on faculty salaries among community colleges," she said, and the college can't afford to expand its nursing program to include the 89 prospective students on a waiting list, despite a national shortage of nurses.

County libraries are thriving, Director Valerie Gross said, with visits to the six branches doubling during the past two years, while borrowing of books and other items is up from 3 million to 5 million in the same period. But more staff is needed to handle the influx, she said.

Robey will hear from the public on spending again in March, before he makes final decisions on his proposed budget for fiscal 2005, which will be announced in mid-April.

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