Budget passes with ease

Few disagreements, little fighting among County Council members


Election-year tension seemed absent in the Howard County Council's unanimous approval of next year's $1.2 billion budget -- even though two members of the council are rivals for the job of county executive being vacated by James N. Robey.

"This is my 14th and last budget. It was the easiest, with the least infighting," said western county Republican Charles C. Feaga, who because of term limits cannot seek re-election after having won three terms in office and having served a partial appointed term.

The budget will increase spending 10 percent; lower the county property tax rate by 3 cents; and give most county employees a 3 percent raise, though firefighters will get another 1 percent in January and teachers negotiated a 3.5 percent increase.

"Overall, I thought it was a good budget," said council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, who also is running for executive, agreed. "The budget was easier," he said.

Bickering seemed to ease generally after March 31, when Councilman David A. Rakes resigned. He was replaced by Calvin Ball, who has been a reliable third vote for Democrats on the five-member council. Although also a Democrat, Rakes had been voting with the Republicans.

Merdon had talked about using his voting majority to cut local income rather than property tax rates, but gave up the idea after Ball was appointed.

After the annual noon budget votes Wednesday, the council, staff and other officials adjourned to a nearby meeting room for a traditional post-budget paper-plate lunch.

The only disagreements came on 3-2 party line votes on two late changes and one resolution involving Belmont, the 18th-century estate and conference center in Elkridge.

Republicans Merdon and Feaga objected to Democratic amendments shifting $470,000 from contingency and snow-removal funds to benefit schools and the county's neediest families.

And even then, the purpose was less at issue than the method.

"I certainly don't have a problem setting money aside to be used at a later time for this purpose. If we continue to chip away at that fund, we may find ourselves not having enough money to take care of emergency needs," Merdon said about shifting $250,000 for a new Family Stabilization fund announced by Robey on Monday.

Merdon suggested the money be earmarked and left in contingency until an emergency arises, or that Robey use some of the roughly $600,000 left in the current year's contingency fund to create the new program.

Feaga, too, objected to removing money from contingency before the budget year begins July 1.

But Robey administration officials said there is still about $1.5 million set aside for emergencies next year -- the same amount as appropriated this year -- and county salt barns have been filled with current monies.

Ulman defended Robey's plan.

"We know the emergency is here, and it will intensify when BGE rates go up [July 1]," he said. "We've got a significant population who really need our help. This is a small pot of money, but an important pot of money."

The same disagreement emerged over Ball's plan to shift $220,000 from contingency to allow the school system to hire an extra guidance counselor, two custodians and a part-time psychologist.

Feaga agreed with Robey's budget cuts for schools, which got all but $3 million the board requested.

"This is almost a stunt so we can make ourselves feel good in an election year," he said.

The Republicans were outvoted 3-2 on both issues, and school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, who was watching the proceedings, said he is satisfied with the outcome.

There was a similar 3-2 result on a resolution offered by Merdon to prevent the county from spending $2 million in capital budget money on renovations at Belmont until the county takes ownership, but even he agreed that nothing would change because of its defeat.

Ulman said later that Recreation and Parks officials could not legally spend the money on property not owned by the county anyway, and the resolution could have complicated things if plans for Belmont later change.

The county is negotiating to buy the historic estate, then lease it back to Howard Community College, which now operates the property.


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