Council to discuss Ulman's budget proposal

Work session to focus on education as members probe departmental requests

May 11, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Howard County Council members are scheduled for an all-day budget work session today, their second this week, as they probe the mysteries of the Ulman administration's $1.3 billion spending plan.

Today's session is to focus mainly on education -- public schools and Howard Community College -- along with a few other agencies and a final review of revenues. Discussions of potential cuts or other changes are to come next week, with a final vote on the budget scheduled May 23.

At Tuesday's session, leaders of 23 agencies as large as public works, fire and police, and as small as the Orphan's Court, sought to justify their requests.

The details revealed an Ulman plan intended to push the county forward on a number of fronts, from public safety and health to technology, with spending growing 10.7 percent.

The budget includes 517 new positions, including 368 school system hires. Eighty-two of the general county jobs are for fire (43) and police (39), part of Ulman's multiyear plan to boost public safety forces.

Ira Levy, county technology director, said he would like to replace 1,000 county computers a year instead of 300 a year. That would mean a three- to four-year turnover rate, compared with the current once-per-decade replacement rate.

With four new members on the five-member council, Tuesday was about asking questions and learning.

Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, appeared focused on the number of requested new positions, brandishing a chart she had requested showing what each agency got in previous years compared with Ulman's proposed budget.

"Do you really need three [finance] positions?" she asked Stacy Spann, county housing director .

"Absolutely," was the quick reply. Without them, he said he can't explore the kind of creative financing needed to promote more affordable housing.

Similarly, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson said his Health Department needs the five more positions requested to begin making Howard a national model for public health. Two positions are for permanent translators, replacing higher-priced contract translators who get up to $55 an hour. Beilenson said all the clients at the county's paternity clinic speak Spanish.

Fire Chief Joseph Herr explained that it takes 4.5 firefighters to fill one new position, because of the 24-hour shifts, training and sick-leave demands and the need for specific numbers of crew members on large ladder trucks and engines. In addition, Herr said 52 firefighters are eligible to retire, and 16 of those have more than 25 years' service.

Western county Republican Greg Fox, who is angling to cut a proposed fire property tax increase, wanted to know why the number of fire department jobs grew by one-third in the past four years. Herr replied that it was due to several factors, including the need for at least three people on every engine, added special services such as heavy rescue squads, and service expansions. Currently, there are 22 vacant positions, Herr said, and new recruits take more than six months to train.

"Can you recruit that number?" Watson asked. Herr replied, "We're doing very well. We'll be able to fill them."

The situation is similar for county police, who operate on three shifts a day and need multiple recruits for each additional patrol position.

"The lion's share of the focus is to supplement the patrol staffing," Chief William McMahon said, describing how he plans to strengthen the county's 23 police "beats" or patrol areas at peak activity times. He said that officers are so busy responding to calls that they have no time for "proactive" community policing.

West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty was interested in the county's 1,200-vehicle fleet. The county would add 72 vehicles in the proposed budget, including 28 for police, who may take them home, 25 Toyota Prius Hybrids for county inspectors and four for county Sheriff James Fitzgerald, who is also requesting five new employees and new pistols to replace his officers' 16-year-old models.

"How do we choose these vehicles? What is their carbon footprint? Are we using the smallest vehicles with the smallest engines possible?" Sigaty asked, concerned with environmental issues. Ulman's budget includes plans for a $100,000 study of the county's "carbon footprint" to see where changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be made.

Meanwhile, administrative Circuit Judge Diane Leasure said she's working on providing interactive computer services for people called to jury duty.

Melanie C. Pereira, the corrections administrator, explained that she needs three new employees because of changes in the jail operations. Court appearances are up 50 percent this year, she said, and the jail's average daily population is more than 300 this year -- up from 281 in 2006. The jail holds up to 361 inmates, she said, and most (64 percent) are now there longer as they await trial.

Fox also criticized Ulman's proposed recycling pilot program that would give about 5,000 county households large-wheeled carts to see if that would boost collections.

"Why does it matter what people use?" Fox asked, noting that people now use all kinds of containers.

"We have a lot of people who don't recycle at all. We have complaints about stuff blowing," James M. Irvin, the public works director, replied, noting it is a pilot program.

"It could be a total failure or it could be a total success," he said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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