Council passes 2005 budget

$968 million package approved on 5-0 vote, but '03 tax fight lingers

30% rise in rate last year

GOP seeks amendment to limit levy increases

May 23, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A unanimous Howard County Council vote put a $968 million budget in place for fiscal 2005, although fallout from last year's bruising tax fight lurked in the background.

"We have come a long way since last year," east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes said after the 5-0 vote Friday. "I kept thinking, `Why did I do that to myself?'"

The memory of the struggle over County Executive James N. Robey's 30 percent increase in the income tax rate wasn't any more comforting for Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon.

"I'm still exhausted from last year," he said in his post-vote remarks. The tax increase passed on a 3-2 party-line vote last year, with the majority Democrats backing Robey.

In fact, the fight continues, but in a different form.

The Democrats insist that the revenue from last year's tax increase is what made this year's budget routine. Republicans, however, are seeking a charter amendment to make it harder to raise taxes in the future.

Bickering this year was confined to relatively minor items - but no less heated - such as athletic field lights at Western Regional Park in Glenwood and whether Lisbon or Guilford elementary schools should wait another year for renovations.

Western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman came out the loser on both scores.

The council unanimously approved a compromise to light three fields rather than five after Kittleman learned that he couldn't get a three-vote majority to kill the plan. "It's not what I prefer, but it's what's available," Kittleman said.

But western county residents were furious about the compromise and berated Kittleman in the hallway outside the council chambers for 15 minutes after the session.

"I'm very disappointed at the other councilmen. I don't really think it's a compromise," said Joan Becker, who led 30 sign-waving supporters to watch the voting. Three lighted fields are as bad as five, she said, even though Robey promised to close the park at 10 p.m. instead of 11 p.m.

Bruce C. Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist working for the opponents, called it "a totally irrational compromise. It makes no sense at all."

Jack Milani, a Glenwood resident and treasurer of the Howard County Lacrosse Program, said the thousands of people who play sports in the county badly need more fields, so he is happy to get three lighted fields, though "we'd like to light all five."

Robey said he wanted lighted fields despite having friends among the opponents. "We want to get more playing time out of the fields. We don't have enough fields to support the demand that's out there," he said, pointing out that Centennial Park and Rockburn Park, both in the eastern county, already have lighted fields.

School renovations

Kittleman also wanted crowded Lisbon Elementary in his district renovated before Guilford Elementary, which is in Chairman Guy Guzzone's North-Laurel-Savage district, but he lost again. The county plans to renovate Guilford and Running Brook, in Columbia, next year, and Lisbon and perhaps Centennial and Clarksville elementary schools in fiscal 2006.

"I'm very disappointed in the lack of leadership in the Board of Education" for forcing the council to choose which school must wait, Kittleman said. But an angry school board Chairman Courtney Watson rejected that, saying that the board already cut Clarksville and Centennial from the list and that the council could have found money for Lisbon if members wanted.

"All three of those were desperately, equally needed. We made a tough decision early to cut two," she said. "We expected the council to find a way to do that [Lisbon]."

The capital budget includes money to build a new western elementary school in Dayton and to finish the new northern high school by August next year.

The 8.5 percent increase in spending will go toward employee pay raises, 6 percent for teachers and 2 percent for others; higher health insurance and other fixed costs; and new teachers to staff more classrooms, including the county's first all-day kindergarten for seven schools.

Other measures

General county employees, who got a 2 percent pay raise this month, will get a 1 percent pay raise on the final day of fiscal 2005 under Robey's plan.

Although no general income or property tax rate increases are included, residents will still pay more in several areas.

Water and sewer fees are to rise 30 percent, costing a typical family of four about $99 a year.

The budget will provide partial-year funding for 10 additional police officers and 10 more firefighters, 11 correctional officers to staff a new central booking center, five recreation workers for the new Western Regional Park, and three more employees for the fast growing county library system.

The budget also includes some fee increases. Parking in a handicapped space will cost $150 instead of $98. All county parking fines will rise, with the standard $24 fine for most violations going to $35. Telephone bills will show an extra charge of 15 cents a month to pay for more 911 operators.

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