County budget will be tight, Robey warns

Costs to consume most of surplus, he tells hearing


Though the local economy is humming, Howard County Executive James N. Robey said new revenue will barely cover inflationary costs for next year's budget, and he said he is not ready to consider tax cuts.

"We finished the previous year with a modest surplus. There are those who think there are oodles of money for their projects, but there isn't," Robey told a sparse crowd at his annual budget hearing Wednesday night in the George Howard Building.

The unappropriated surplus is $20.4 million, compared with less than $1 million the previous year. Robey has said $6 million of that is being used to bolster the county's Rainy Day Fund. Officials worry that the rest could be eaten away by a federally mandated accounting change that could force them to begin putting $400 million away for county employees' future retirement health benefits.

"We expect $43 million in new revenues, but built-in ... increases will cost $42 million. We're projecting a very small margin," Robey said.

Asked before the meeting about Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's proposal Tuesday night to cut property taxes there by 15 percent, Robey said he is not ready to follow suit. Montgomery, he noted, has a 10 percent assessment cap, compared with Howard's 5 percent, which means property tax revenue has been growing faster in Montgomery.

Despite the fiscal pressures, Valerie Gross, the county library director, said she is requesting funds to allow libraries to open 30 minutes earlier and close a half-hour later on some weekdays. She also wants the Miller branch library in Ellicott City to join the central library in staying open Sundays year-round. Other county libraries now close on summer Sundays.

In his remarks, Robey stressed the need for infrastructure repairs and maintenance.

Public Works Director James M. Irvin recently told the county's Spending Affordability Committee that oft-deferred maintenance of county roads, storm drains and ponds and sidewalks is an increasingly difficult problem because Howard has no way to fund it. An idea to charge each household $25 to create an annual fund died during the last recession, Irvin said.

"My biggest fear besides [county] buildings is the storm water management system. People don't care about them until they fail. Then they care a whole lot," he said.

Testimony was dominated by advocates for a $20 million renovation of Mount Hebron High School, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, and for a new combined home for a larger Miller library and county historical center in Ellicott City.

Patrick Gilbert, a senior at Mount Hebron High, said his younger sister attends the gleaming new Marriotts Ridge High School, while he finishes in the "cramped and outdated" hallways of Mount Hebron, built originally as a junior high school.

School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said he will present his fiscal 2007 budget to the school board Jan. 5, but he noted that the current budget already is $1 million behind. Utility and energy costs are rising, and teachers are due a 3.5 percent pay raise next year.

The school system also faces maintenance problems, Cousin said, with $7 million worth of deferred projects for new boilers, plumbing and electrical upgrades in older buildings, and construction costs up 30 percent. To catch up in all 73 county buildings would take $100 million, he said.

The schools have requested $100 million for construction projects next year, said Courtney Watson, the former school board chairman.

In addition to a large group who came to back the Howard Community College's budget, libraries also had their supporters.

Diane Butler of Ellicott City complained that the Miller library, on Frederick Road, is "one-third the size it should be." Her home-schooled daughter often has to request books from other, larger branches, she said, and has had water fall on her head in the library when it rains.

"For one of the richest counties in the country, this is a disgrace," she said, asking Robey to include $2.9 million in his budget to buy land and plan a new building nearby.

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