Toughest budget issue tied to schools

Funding can be used for new hires or a teacher raise, not both

`This was a challenging year'

Howard County

April 20, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Despite 75 police officers rallying for a retroactive pay raise last night outside the Howard County government complex in Ellicott City, the toughest choices in County Executive James N. Robey's proposed budget involve class size in county schools.

"This was a challenging year. The last two have been tricky," Robey said, adding that his larger worry is what will happen next year if the $800 million state budget shortfall results in major new cuts in state aid to local governments.

Unlike last year's politically charged battle over higher income taxes, Robey's nearly $1 billion spending plan for fiscal 2005 seems more likely to stir debate over the county's top priority - schools.

For example, there is enough new money for the school board to hire 224 more employees and keep class sizes low, or pay teachers the 6 percent more in salary the board agreed to two years ago - but not both.

School officials said they are faced with cutting $11 million from what they requested - not counting the $3 million of mid-year budget cuts the board returned to the county for this year.

"Everything will be on the table. Class size is a natural item for us to be looking at," along with textbooks and after-school programs, said Courtney Watson, school board chairman.

"The board will not go back on its word," to pay teachers a 6 percent increase next year, Watson said. And registration is already under way for all-day kindergarten at seven county elementary schools, so that program is safe, too, she said.

But the board will have to cut funding in "previously untouched areas" to save $11 million the board requested, but Robey did not provide in his proposal, Watson said.

Robey also included money for partial-year funding for 10 new police officers, 10 firefighters and 11 corrections officers to keep up with growth and to staff the central booking facility due to open this summer. With plans to open Western Regional Park in Glenwood and Meadowbrook Park in Ellicott City, five new parks workers are needed, and the library got three new workers.

The executive also included a 2 percent pay raise for general county workers, starting July 1, and an additional 1 percent raise on the final day of the fiscal year, June 30, 2005.

James F. Fitzgerald, the police union president, organized a unity rally for officers last night, just before Robey's speech, to drive home their complaint that they should have received a 4 percent pay raise this year, instead of half that July 1 last year and the other half May 1. The police officers gathered around a huge truck-mounted sign attacking the integrity of the former career county police officer and chief. The sign said, "Mr. Robey: Integrity should NOT have retired with your badge."

When Robey entered the building in Ellicott City for the budget meeting, officers went in to hear him speak.

"We should have gotten our money," Fitzgerald said, repeating his charge that the executive promised 4 percent for the entire year, but reneged. Robey denied that, and has said he provided all the county could afford given a $22 million drop in revenue projections and state budget cuts.

Given his 32 years in the county Police Department and his efforts to boost police pay and pensions, the rally "sure disappoints me because I know how hard I worked," Robey said.

The combination of cost-of-living pay raises and step raises mean some officers will get 7.5 percent more next year, Robey said.

County Council members, who began work on the spending plan after the executive's presentation speech to them last night, can put funds for schools back into the budget, but only if they find revenue to pay for it. The council has until June 1 to adopt a budget.

Robey's plan is to spend 8.5 percent ($41.6 million) more overall, including 7.4 percent more in locally raised funds, most of which ($24 million) will go to county schools. He asked for no major new tax increases, but is forced by county charter to pass along a 30 percent water and sewer rate increase - the first since 1997 - to pay for the self-supporting utility system. He is also requesting higher parking fines. The 911 phone tax would rise 15 cents a line - enough to hire eight people for the emergency center.

A typical family of four would pay $99 more for water and sewer service next year, budget officials said, and although property tax rates aren't supposed to rise, assessment increases will cost owners of a $200,000 house another $104 in property taxes.

Robey included $4.8 million in cash for capital building projects, and $750,000 to add to the county Rainy Day emergency fund, which is expected to reach $35 million next year.

County Council members, whom Robey briefed on the budget late last week, had few detailed observations.

"I think it's a very responsible, conservative approach, and I think it still allows for some important things to move forward," such as the new police officers, said Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman noted that 10 new officers really means only two more officers on the street because of shifts, vacations and training time. "I know this is really a maintenance budget."

David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, called the budget "a vast improvement over last year, that's for sure," referring to the income tax increase that brought Howard's rate from Maryland's third lowest to the legal limit of 3.2 percent.

The council's two Republicans, who last year vigorously opposed the tax increase, were more subdued this year.

"It's too early to say anything," said Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican. "I'm pleased there isn't a tax increase again."

Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said: "I know the new proposal keeps new positions to a minimum. The majority of the increase goes to education. That's what we hear from our constituents - that's where they want the money to go."

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