Council weighs cuts, complex

Panel members consider priorities for county budget

May 16, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Ulman administration officials are strongly defending keeping $16.6 million in the capital budget to start work on a new Howard County government complex, as the County Council considers what, if anything, to cut.

County Executive Ken Ulman inherited a plan from the former executive, James N. Robey, to build two parking garages, a new county office building and a circuit court building on the site.

"The big thing is, this building is on borrowed time," James M. Irvin, the county public works director, told council members during a five-hour discussion in the George Howard Building on Monday. The office building, which houses the council and county executive's offices, is part of a four-building county government complex off Courthouse Drive in Ellicott City that was built during the 1970s when the county's population began a huge growth spurt.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article on the County Council's budget deliberations published Wednesday in the Howard County section of The Sun, the number of new general county positions proposed in County Executive Ken Ulman's budget was incorrect. Ulman has proposed adding 140 positions. The Sun regrets the error.

Renovations to the George Howard Building have been put off so many times that there is now a danger of major system failures that could make the structure temporarily unusable, Irvin said.

Old galvanized iron water pipes could burst any time, he said, and parts no longer are available for the heating and air-conditioning systems and must be custom-made. Any major failure could force the county out of the building, Irvin said. Joan Lewis Kennedy, Ulman's chief lobbyist, said it would cost $30 million to replace the air-handling system.

Everything from the building's metal exterior to the old, energy-sapping lights and the entire electrical system is outdated and in danger of failing, Irvin said.

"We're really up against the wall," he said. "We have to do something this year."

Irvin said Ulman wants to use the money this year. He is considering building an addition to the county police headquarters building to help house the 100 new officers he wants to hire during his first term. The money also could be used to build one of the parking garages.

The question is how to go ahead with a redevelopment project that could cost well over $200 million, without delaying higher priority school construction and renovations.

The council is scheduled to meet today after Monday's session failed to focus the members on specific amendments for a final vote May 23.

Ulman has proposed raising the fire tax rate 3 cents in the western county and 1 cent in the east to reach a uniform rate of 13.55 cents per $100 of assessed value. He wants to use $7.7 million to help build new fire stations, install 10 water tanks around the rural west for firefighting, and to buy new trucks to expand services.

"Before we vote to increase taxes, I want to do everything we can not to," said Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.

Although the campus money is a prime issue, it is also indirectly related to other potential cuts ideas.

Watson wants to cut $5 million from the capital budget intended to allow Howard Community College to buy and renovate portions of Belmont, the 18th-century Elkridge estate and conference center. She argued Monday that the college has enough cash set aside in its operating budget to pay the mortgage at Belmont for another year. Watson wants the college to use state Program Open Space money to buy Belmont, which is owned by the Howard Community College Educational Foundation, a separate legal entity.

At a council session May 11, Mary Ellen Duncan, the outgoing college president, appeared to have little patience for Watson's ideas.

"The council needs to approve the funds or turn them down," Duncan said. "We really have to move on. Do this or not. A delay of one year is not a viable option for us."

Watson also wants to add at least $1.1 million in planning money to the school budget to keep the Mount Hebron High School renovation project on schedule. She also identified $974,000 in excess health insurance money for school employees that could be cut. The schools have an $8 million reserve fund for their self-insurance system.

Councilman Greg Fox, a western county Republican, is determined to cut at least $6 million to replace revenue the proposed fire property tax increase would provide. Killing the tax increase, though not the fire services it would pay for, appears to be his highest priority.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said she is worried about whether the county will be able to financially sustain adding the 40 general county employees Ulman has proposed hiring in his $1.3 billion budget. Sigaty noted looming state budget cuts, the need to save millions of dollars for retiree health benefits and the expense of capital projects. Sigaty, a former school board member, did not mention the 341 new school system employees in the fiscal 2008 budget.

Watson and Fox appeared to drive Monday's discussion, but the outcome is far from clear, which is why members decided on a final meeting this afternoon.

Council chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, defended the plan to add 39 new firefighters.

"I have concerns, too, about raising a tax, but when I look at the importance of public safety ... I would need a really strong argument to cut those positions," he said.

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