Deadline nears for budget changes

County Council has until tomorrow to OK proposed cuts in spending plan

May 20, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

After spending weeks at tortuously long meetings trying vainly to agree on potential budget cuts, the Howard County Council is running out of time.

Any changes to County Executive Ken Ulman's $1.3 billion spending plan must be filed by 2 p.m. tomorrow, before the final vote at noon Wednesday.

This year's review of the budget was in sharp contrast to last year's, when a veteran group of council members whisked through departmental reviews in record time and made no major changes in outgoing executive James N. Robey's spending plan. Several issues produced 3-to-2 party-line disagreements but no rancor, despite the election-year timing.

This year, four of the five council members are new. And chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat and the only returning member, has served just over one year.

As a result, the review process of County Executive Ken Ulman's $1.3 billion budget has been slowed considerably. The council had 10 hours of discussions over three days last week and failed to produce a consensus.

Three council members -- Republican Greg Fox and Democrats Courtney Watson and Mary Kay Sigaty -- expressed interest in lowering the increase Ulman proposed in the fire property tax, but they did not settle on what to cut to replace the $6 million in new revenue the tax increase would produce. Because the dedicated fire tax must fund only fire department items, any council move to cut the tax would require a companion cut in fire department funding, or an agreement with Ulman to shift funds from another place.

Ulman said he was open to discussion if a council majority desired, but no council member appeared interested in cutting the fire department budget.

"There hasn't been a lot of talk about reducing capital or operating things in the fire department," said Fox, who represents the western county and is the tax proposal's most vocal critic.

Watson agreed. "I don't think there was any big motivation to cut the public safety budget," she said.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa said that although she represents an eastern county district served by public utilities, she does not think the tax increase is a major issue with the public.

"I haven't heard a lot of complaints about the fire tax," she said.

Still, Fox identified a series of small public works and planning capital projects showing about $1.6 million in cumulative new funding that could be cut, and he said he may propose amendments tomorrow.

Ulman proposed raising the fire tax 1 cent per $100 of assessed value countywide, and 2 cents in the rural zone Fox represents, which is not served by public water and sewer. That would bring the rate to a uniform countywide level of 13.55 cents.

The increase would help pay for new fire stations, expensive new trucks and underground water tanks in the west, plus 39 more firefighters and a 6 percent pay raise.

Another proposal to cut $5 million in county funding to allow Howard Community College to buy Belmont, the 18th-century Elkridge estate and conference center, and renovate two buildings had not attracted three votes despite a strong effort by Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson, who represents the area. The estate is owned by the college's foundation, which bought it in 2004. But the conference center is losing money and the college wants to eliminate the mortgage debt, while making it a profitable home for its hospitality curriculum.

Watson and critics of the college's program at Belmont want the county to seek state funding and ownership using Program Open Space funds that would restrict what can be built on the historic site.

All the land is surrounded by Patapsco State Park, a fact Watson said gives the state a strong reason to buy and protect the site from overuse.

Another possible cut involved the $16.6 million for a start on redevelopment of the county's main office complex on Court House Drive in Ellicott City, but a strong defense of the urgency of that long-delayed initiative by James M. Irvin, the public works director, appeared to blunt the impulse to cut those funds.

Watson also identified $974,000 in excess health insurance money in the school budget, but no one proposed cutting that.

West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty is likely the key swing vote on all the issues, but she said after Thursday's final discussion that she is not inclined to back Watson on Belmont.

"At this point, I am supporting the executive's budget," on Belmont, she said. Although she also expressed interest in reducing the fire tax increase. "What I do on it is going to depend on the source" of the replacement funds, she said.

Watson said she will propose a series of four amendments on Belmont if she cannot garner enough support to cut the county money for purchase and renovations.

They would:

Guarantee the county the return of its money if the college sells Belmont in the future.

Require appraisals of the property before any purchase.

Require the college to have $2 million in promised private donations in hand before any county money is paid.

Cut $544,000 in the college's operating budget for interest payments on the current mortgage for Belmont. If Ulman's funding goes through, the interest money will not be needed, Watson argued.

"It's my hope the amendments won't be needed," Watson said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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