Robey warns of tight times

Sources of future revenue are limited, executive says

Record school-construction needs

He also notes some points as reasons for optimism

January 18, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

While Howard County's economy is showing signs of robust recovery, county government is limping along and future revenues are likely to remain limited, County Executive James N. Robey told the Chamber of Commerce on Friday in his annual State of the County address.

Requests for school construction money are a record $115 million for next fiscal year, Robey said, while he's facing requests for more than $170 million in capital projects, including "critically, critically, critically needed projects" from other departments, many of which have been put off for years.

"We can no longer continue to do this and maintain a safe county infrastructure," he warned.

But if critics of Robey's 30 percent income tax increase are looking for allies, they did not surface in the business crowd of about 250 people who listened to the executive's speech at a Columbia hotel.

"As a business owner and resident, we're happy to do what we need to do," said chamber Chairwoman Linda R. Burton, who operates the consulting firm DRW Inc. in Ellicott City. "The feedback we got [on tax increases] from the business community ... was favorable. What we need to do is keep what we've got," she said, referring to the county's vaunted school system and quality of life.

Allen Cornell, vice president of Michael Co. Inc., a commercial real estate firm in Columbia, echoed Burton's sentiment, despite saying he doesn't like paying higher taxes any more than the next person.

"I think the county executive's done a real good job striking a good balance," he said, adding that he's "clearly seen an increase in demand for companies taking [office] space."

Robey pointed to several signs of a bright economic future: 1,411 net jobs created in the county last year, a reduction in the prime office space vacancy rate from 24 percent to 15.3 percent, Howard's low unemployment rate of 2.5 percent; and construction of office buildings covering a half-million square feet, plus the huge Emerson and Maple Lawn Farms mixed-use developments.

By contrast, county government is mired in a tough situation, he said, with demands for schools, teachers and public safety improvements crowding other needs, while revenue growth is limited.

The county executive predicted that state budget battles during the General Assembly session will likely mean more cuts to counties, while demands for buildings and services continue to rise.

129,000 police calls

Police handled 129,000 calls last year and the fire department responded to more than 26,000 emergencies, he said. At the same time - while the county's population grew by 30,000 people in the past five years - county government (excluding schools) hired 73 new employees, half of whom were police officers.

Most new revenue has gone to build schools, expand and renovate older ones, and staff them with more than 1,600 new employees. Other needs, meanwhile, go begging.

"We are operating at the same staffing level as in 1997, with over 70 unfilled positions," Robey said. "The bottom line on all of this is that in the long run, our revenues from property tax and income tax will grow by about 5 [percent] to 7 percent a year. That means we must limit our budget increase to that level."

County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who attended the luncheon along with a host of county officials, said the message he heard is that while the county is asking the General Assembly not to cut county aid further, "regardless of what they do, we're going to stand up and take care of our own issues."

Revenue forecasts

Western county Republican Councilman Allan H. Kittleman said that while he agrees with Robey that revenue growth will be slow, one reason the county is struggling financially is that income tax revenue forecasts were $22 million too high last spring.

"I think he's right that we have to limit government and stop trying to keep up with the Joneses," Kittleman said. "We have to live within our means."

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