Council nears approval of $968 million budget

Robey proposal includes raises, freeze on tax rates

Howard County

May 12, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive James N. Robey's proposed $968 million budget for fiscal 2005 appears headed for passage with only cursory public scrutiny, though yesterday's brief final County Council session ended on a note of political acrimony.

Although minor tinkering will continue through the week, the major elements won't change, said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. Those elements include no tax increases, 2 percent employee pay raises (6 percent for teachers) and the spending plan announced April 19. A final council vote is scheduled for May 21.

The school operating budget will fall about $9 million short of the Board of Education's request, after $3 million worth of computer equipment and maintenance costs are transferred to the capital budget, where increased state funding is available, Guzzone said.

Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, noted that the $9 million cut comes atop the $7.6 million the board had trimmed from the request.

"We knew there wasn't going to be a lot of money. We're prepared. We have our cut list," she said, adding that the board will decide tomorrow night on specific cuts.

"It does not appear that the board will increase class size," she said, but rather will concentrate on delaying textbook purchases another year and cutting money for things such as maintenance.

Robey has agreed to provide $150,000 through the Department of Citizen Services to pay for another year of the Parents as Teachers program, which for three years has been a school board operation, Guzzone said. The program works with parents, many from immigrant families, to help their preschool children develop and to learn about county services.

Watson said the school board voted unanimously last week to sever connections with the program, since it doesn't fit as a school function.

Lauri Lee, the program director, said the four employees serve 58 children younger than age 5 attending 16 county schools. There are 52 families on the waiting list. This year, the program's budget was $236,000, Watson said.

Guzzone said Robey also likely will provide an additional $1 million to buy land for future school sites, an initiative favored by Ellicott City Republican Councilman Christopher J. Merdon.

But Merdon, who wanted $2.5 million more for school land purchases, was angry that another $50,000 he wants set aside to do fiscal impact studies for future developments was not approved by Robey.

Merdon called Robey's refusal to fund the studies "extremely irresponsible and short-sighted." He added that residents often don't believe data in studies paid for by developers.

"We know we're facing Turf Valley and Maple Lawn Farms Phase II," he said, referring to two large mixed-use projects. "We're talking about $50,000 compared to hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure," for roads and schools -- needs that an unbiased, objective study could predict, he argued.

"The problem we always face is people say we shouldn't trust what [information] we get from a developer," agreed western county Republican Councilman Allan H. Kittleman.

Merdon accused Robey of playing politics by agreeing to find money for Parents as Teachers, which was backed by Democrats, but not for his request, because he and Kittleman sponsored a charter amendment that would limit the executive's power to raise taxes.

But Guzzone and Jim Vannoy, deputy chief administrative officer for Robey, said Merdon only raised the suggestion late last week.

"Where's he going to cut $50,000 to pay for it, and while he's at it, where is he going to cut $40 million?" Guzzone said, referring to revenue raised by the income tax rate increase Robey pushed through last year.

Merdon said he was prepared to find $50,000 in other cuts if Robey had agreed and said the mention of $40 million in cuts was "silliness."

The idea of funding fiscal studies "is not a priority right now," said Raquel Sanudo, Robey's chief administrative officer. She denied a political motive, though Vannoy said he told Merdon that Robey "is not generally happy" with him.

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