Hearing on budget gets bad news from Robey

Only so much to spend, executive reminds crowd

Howard County

March 10, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The 13th speaker had just finished urging money for all-day kindergarten - following others who pushed for more ball fields, community college aid, library staffing and books - when Howard County Executive James N. Robey interrupted testimony at last night's annual county budget hearing.

"No one in the executive branch of government is going to disagree with anything you say," Robey said of the litany of requests for more money, looking agitated.

"But the reality of life is I have $40 million," he said of available new revenue for the next fiscal year's budget. If the school board gets the entire $35 million more it requested, he said, "that leaves me $5 million."

Several of the speakers, Robey said, had told him they understand he has tough decisions to make.

"Everyone says `I understand,' but I really wonder," he said, as 27 other residents awaited a turn at the microphone. The hearing in the County Council chambers in Ellicott City was attended by nearly 200 people, and 15 others had sent testimony by e-mail before the session.

By 9 p.m., only two people seemed to want less of anything - Pam Smith, opposed to lighting ballfields at the new Western Regional Park, and James Oglethorpe, who pushed for less spending overall.

Oglethorpe, president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association, suggested demolishing the Blandair mansion instead of spending $1 million to restore it, and leaving the 300-acre farm in central Columbia to return to forest instead of developing it as a park.

The Howard Transit system was another target. "Why should ordinary taxpayers supplement the transportation costs of a few select citizens that, for whatever reason, don't choose to operate cars?" he asked.

His group wants spending cuts and no tax increases.

Lois Bailey of Oakland Mills said all-day kindergarten at Talbott Springs Elementary could provide "a big boost" to children from poor and immigrant homes who are struggling in school. "This funding is not a frill," said David Hatch, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board.

Roger Caplan, Howard Community College board chairman, said space and quality teachers are badly needed. Enrollment is up 26 percent since 1998, and is expected to grow by another 1,000 students in five more years, he said.

Borrowing from county libraries increased from 3 million to 5 million items in two years and library visits have doubled, but money for new books was cut $300,000 this year because of a budget crisis, library Director Valerie Gross said.

According to Robey, he needs to trim at least $15.5 million in operating budget requests to keep spending in line with the $40 million of expected revenue growth - if no more state cuts materialize.

But he also faces growing costs, including hiring the 18 correctional officers needed to staff the new central booking facility being built in Jessup.

Robey noted in a letter distributed to the crowd along with a budget summary that aside from schools, he told department heads to include no money for new programs.

Still, equipment must be bought for Western Regional Park, and funds are needed to pay higher health insurance and other fixed costs.

Interest on county debt will rise by $4.5 million alone. At the same time, capital budget requests for building projects are at $170 million, though the county is unlikely to have anything close to that to spend.

While Raymond S. Wacks, county budget director, is recommending spending $7 million in operating budget cash for capital projects, he also has said revenue will grow 5 percent to 7 percent a year for the next few years, limiting spending.

The county executive is to announce his capital budget at the end of this month, and his operating budget April 19. The County Council then has until June to make changes and adopt both spending plans.

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