Trimmed budget for public schools said to be `clean'

County Council seems unlikely to restore funds cut by executive

May 07, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council seems unlikely to restore education funding cut by County Executive James N. Robey after its first budget review yesterday, but an undercurrent of tension over last year's income tax increase was clear at the session.

A $12 million list of school spending cuts outlined last week by interim school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin may still be reduced by $3 million by shifting computer and maintenance costs from operating to capital budgets. But the council questioned only a few of the other proposed trims.

"It looks pretty clean to me," said east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes, who said he might like to see a bit more funding for special education.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article published in the Friday edition of The Sun in Howard County on County Council budget deliberations, interim school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin's position was misstated. Cousin agreed with a council member's suggestion that the county should provide more money for buying school sites, but not with other suggestions, which came after he had left the room. Also, an editing error eliminated school board Chairman Courtney Watson's first name.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said he wants the Parents as Teachers program preserved, while western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman warned against cutting the extra teachers and administrators assigned to crowded schools, such as Hollifield Station Elementary. Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, replied that the board has cut 10 positions from the countywide staff pool of 51 people used for that purpose.

The tax issue was a backdrop when Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon questioned school officials about buying vacant land to bank long before new buildings are needed. He said later he would like to add $2.5 million to the $4 million site-acquisition fund. He would also like more county support for economic development and perhaps have the county rather than developers do fiscal impact studies for proposed projects to be sure they are objective, he said, and Cousin agreed.

But council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, rolled his eyes at one of Merdon's suggestions.

"So far, all I've heard is Republicans adding money to this budget. It's incredible," he said after the meeting.

"I'm still waiting to see $40 million in cuts," Guzzone said. He said the cuts would show where the Republicans Merdon and Kittleman would eliminate services paid for by the tax increase.

Last year, both Republicans opposed the 30 percent increase in the county's income tax, which the council's Democratic majority enacted to cover rising costs and declining state aid. This month, the two Republicans introduced a charter amendment that would require four of the five council members, instead of a simple majority, to approve any income or property tax increases. The council has three Democrats and two Republicans.

Guzzone, the county executive and the other Democratic council members argue that if the tax increase was not needed, the Republicans should be proposing a plan to do without the revenue it produced - an idea Kittleman and Merdon have rejected.

"The things I'm proposing are investments that will ultimately save the county money," Merdon said. "These are cost-saving measures."

During the two-hour review of county education spending, the interim superintendent disclosed that bids on the new northern high school are at least $2 million under projections

With state Board of Public Works approval Wednesday of $4.5 million more in state school construction money, and the savings from the high school, Cousin's list of cuts could be whittled down but only if Robey, the council majority and the school board agree.

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said that Robey has not decided how to use the new money, adding that $910,000 in revenue expected from General Assembly action to close a transfer tax loophole never materialized and must also be made up.

Coping with the education needs of the county's growing population occupied much of the budget review.

Cousin explained that he is seeking $1.8 million in the capital budget for Bushy Park Elementary, in part to plan for a likely larger replacement school to be built on county recreation land next door. Using the old building as a regional all-day kindergarten center "seems like it's off the table but not completely," Watson said.

Ulman questioned plans to add 50 seats at Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton, where a wing for developmentally disabled students is to be built. With the huge Maple Lawn Farms development set to begin, he worried that schools would be flooded with new students, overwhelming the two new classrooms in the budget.

The council has more work sessions next week and expects to vote on a budget May 21.

During one particularly complicated financial discussion, David White, the school budget director, provoked a laugh by handing the council a fortune cookie message pasted onto a large sheet of pink paper.

"A way out of a financial mess is discovered as if by magic," it read, followed by the usual list of lottery numbers to play.

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