Schools get full funding

County fire tax may be increased to help fund record $353.7 million capital budget

April 04, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's first capital budget gives county schools every penny they requested, but it also forecasts higher fire taxes for property owners and excise taxes for developers to help fund the record $353.7 million proposal.

Ulman said his plan reflects his priorities of education, public safety and the environment, but he warned that tough decisions on "future revenue sources" are looming.

"Over the coming years, our capital budget pressures will intensify drastically," Ulman said in a letter to the County Council.

Ulman also would reverse former Executive James N. Robey's plan for the county to buy Belmont, the historic Elkridge estate. Instead, Ulman's budget includes $2.2 million to match private funding and allow Howard Community College to buy the property and $2.8 million for renovations. The county also would use state Program Open Space money to buy an adjoining property to forestall development.

Ulman's plan for Belmont has spurred objections from the college's critics, including county Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents the area.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions. The stakes are very high for the college and the community," Watson said.

Council members met briefly with Ulman late Monday, and most said they needed time to study his budget proposal, though several found things that they like.

"I was really excited to see money for the children's learning center at Howard Community College," as well as money for environmental initiatives and park improvements, said Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat.

Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said, "I'm pleased he fully funded the school budget," and that Ulman included money for a community center at the proposed North Laurel Park.

But Republican Greg Fox questioned the need for a fire tax increase, while praising Ulman for a plan to install underground water tanks throughout the rural county, where firefighters have often struggled to find sources of water to fight fires.

"I haven't been shown a real reason to increase the fire tax," Fox said.

The County Council must vote on the budget by June 1. A public hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 19 in the George Howard Building.

The plan for fiscal 2008 leaves two major financial questions unanswered:

How to pay for renovating or replacing aging high schools, starting with Mount Hebron High in Ellicott City.

What to do about obsolete county government and court buildings - potentially a $225 million expense.

Raymond H. Brown, chief operating officer for Howard County schools, said, "We're very pleased" with this year's school capital budget."

It includes $11.7 million to complete full-day kindergarten programs; $32 million for renovations at Worthington, Clemens Crossing, Waterloo and Northfield elementary schools and at Clarksville Middle School; $10.9 million to complete an addition at Glenelg High; and $5 million for a Centennial Elementary addition.

Mount Hebron's future is less certain. "Once the information is in and the school board makes a decision in terms of the scope of the project, that will drive the necessary next step - development of a funding strategy," Brown said.

The school board has ordered a study of four older high schools to determine whether to renovate or replace them.

Plans to redevelop or replace the county government complex have been discussed since 2000. Ulman included $16.6 million in his budget as a placeholder, he said, though he has not decided what to do.

"I am keeping my options open. What has been proposed to me is too expensive," he said, referring to the $225 million price tag for a complete redevelopment of the county's Ellicott City complex, including a new circuit courthouse, two midrise office buildings and two parking garages.

Still, he said, something must be done. "It's prudent to start to put aside money now."

The budget also includes $1.9 million to plan a $36 million combination Ellicott City library and Howard County Historical Society headquarters. The existing library building would be converted to administrative use.

The largest single expense in the capital budget is $125 million for water and sewer projects, but those are self-supporting, paid by separate utility taxes.

Inflation is a major factor in some projects, as the $5.4 million to continue work on the new public safety training facility at Alpha Ridge illustrates.

The police/fire training center was first proposed by Robey as a $17 million project. The final cost, including $6.7 million more in fiscal year 2009, is to be twice that.

School construction funding is normally the stress point in Howard, but the school board's decision to delay a decision on renovating or rebuilding Mount Hebron High School removed the toughest issue from the equation this year.

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