Schools to get nearly all of budget request

Robey says stronger economy enables more generous spending

April 19, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Howard County schools would get all but $3 million of what the school board requested in the fiscal 2007 operating budget proposed by County Executive James N. Robey, who also wants to boost spending by 10 percent while cutting property taxes and giving county workers a pay raise.

The $1.2 billion spending plan also includes money for longer library hours, eight more police officers and 30 more firefighters, plus two deputy sheriffs for courthouse security. Two police officers would help with street-level drug enforcement, while six more would be used to form a new Northern District squad to concentrate on attacking emerging crime trends.

The budget would add four people to operate the new Glenwood Senior Center and two people to help run the new Western Regional Park. A county planner would be added to work on redevelopment on U.S. 40 and U.S. 1. Robey also said he will appoint a committee to study retiree health costs over the summer rather than set money aside now to begin paying that looming bill.

A new, high-level staff member would also be hired to direct the county's response to the thousands of defense-related jobs expected in the area from the federal Base Closure and Realignment decisions, and a bilingual specialist would be added to strengthen services for the growing Korean-American community.

The executive said an improving economy has enabled him to do more in this, his last budget, than he has been able to achieve before. Robey is prevented by term limits from running for a third term. He is a candidate for the state Senate.

"This is the budget I'm most proud of," Robey told the County Council on Monday night. "All in all, I bring you very good news tonight."

He added: "Revenues are coming in much stronger than the last several years."

As if to prove it, Robey proposes spending $21 million in surplus funds on capital projects, compared with a three-year total of $5.2 million spent from 2003 through 2005.

The County Council has until June to review his proposal and may only cut spending, except for education, for which members have the power to restore funds the executive has cut. The first public hearing, which will focus on capital spending, is scheduled for 7 p.m. tomorrow in the council's Ellicott City chambers.

After Robey's budget speech, several members said they want to make sure there is enough money for renovations at older schools such as Clarksville Middle and Worthington Elementary. Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who is running for county executive, also said he would like to see an income tax cut rather than the 3-cent reduction in the property tax rate proposed by Robey.

According to the county budget office, Robey's property tax cut would save the owner of a median-priced $450,000 home $135 if the $1.044 rate remained unchanged, though the tax bill on that same home will rise $93 in July because of rising assessments. If the council approves, the new tax rate would be $1.014 per $100 of assessed value.

Robey and west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, also a candidate for county executive, argued that property taxes are most burdensome, especially on homeowners with limited incomes, while Merdon said an income tax cut would help more people. The issue could be decided by the council's new fifth member, who is to be sworn in tomorrow night. The Democrat will replace David A. Rakes, who resigned last month.

"The biggest hit I see coming is for those who pay property taxes," Robey said.

Ulman added that, in his view, "a person on a fixed income might live in a nice house but have no money" for higher taxes.

But Merdon said Howard should not remain at the 3.2 percent legal limit for income taxes - the highest level allowed by state law. A cut there, he said, is more broad-based. "It provides relief for all the residents of Howard County," he said.

Robey's plan devotes half of the $67.9 million in new county revenues to education, including $30.9 million to public schools and $3.3 million to Howard Community College, mainly to prepare for opening two new buildings - one for visual and performing arts and another for student services. The budget includes funds for 295 new school employees and 31 more staff members for the community college. "We're starting out in a better place, but there's no slack in it," said Joshua Kaufman, the school board chairman.

School officials complained about Robey's $3 million cut to their request - despite getting $47 million more from both the county and state - but they also acknowledged it is the smallest cut in the board's request in years. Last year, Robey trimmed $8.4 million from the board's request.

"We had a prudent budget to begin with," said school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, who said the board would have to examine the plan once the County Council finishes work on it to see what changes must be made.

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