Budget wish list aired

County executive hears agencies' pleas for additional funds in next fiscal year

December 16, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Call it Howard County's holiday wish list, with County Executive Ken Ulman in the role of Santa.

Despite leaner financial times ahead, residents want next fiscal year's county budget to provide everything from a 50-meter indoor swimming pool to earth-tone colored recycling bins, plus a few renovated schools and new buildings for libraries and Howard Community College.

No one among the 28 speakers at the annual executive's budget hearing Thursday night asked for less spending or lower taxes.

Ulman preceded the speakers with warnings that "these are tighter times. The real estate bubble has burst." Although the local economy is holding up and the county is not facing a revenue shortfall, he said, there are still $550 million in state budget cuts to come in addition to the changes made during the General Assembly's special session that cost Howard $8.8 million.

"There's precious little money for new initiatives," he warned.

The first speaker after those comments was school board member Diane Mikulis, who said she slipped out of a school board meeting just to remind Ulman that the board has requested $118 million in construction and renovation funds, and needs more money to pay teachers and care for more children from poor and immigrant families.

But not everyone wanted more.

Rene Buckmon, vice president of the Association of Community Services, urged Ulman "to hold harmless those programs that provide services to our most vulnerable citizens" by not cutting county grants to the 130 nonprofit human services agencies under the ACS umbrella.

Ditto for Blake Fetrow, director of the Legal Aid office in Howard, who came to protect the funding that his 32 lawyers serving a three-county area receive.

Fetrow said 250 poor families in Howard County got legal services through his office in the District Court building in Ellicott City last year, including an 83-year-old woman in assisted living who lost her state medical benefits and was facing life in a nursing home until Legal Aid intervened.

Others -- advocates for affordable housing -- want the executive to use any revenue from closed loopholes on the sale of commercial property to create a housing trust fund.

But Ulman said that although he wants to create such a fund, he will have to first see whether the General Assembly action will produce any added transfer tax revenue.

Ulman was sympathetic in other cases, too, but he said he is unable to promise anything until the fiscal situation becomes clearer.

Library Director Valerie Gross, for example, wants to start building a new, larger library in Ellicott City, and library patrons pleaded for larger facilities in Savage and Elkridge. Gross said she just got word of a $400,000 state grant to help.

Ulman, 33, noted that the Miller branch on Frederick Road was crowded when he was in high school, but he said construction will depend on revenues and other needs.

Kathleen Hetherington, president of Howard Community College, said enrollment is up 5.1 percent this fall, and parking is so crowded that the college plans a shuttle service for students in January. Enrollment has increased 46 percent in the past eight years, she said, and despite several new buildings and a garage, the college has less space per student than any other community college in Maryland.

She wants $7.5 million to add classrooms, $1.9 million to plan a new life sciences building and money for a 750-space garage.

Suzi Crowe of Woodbine waved petitions signed by 600 people seeking a lighted skateboard park in Western Regional Park, while Daniel Lesko argued for a large skateboard facility in Centennial Park.

"There are so many kids in our rural community who would use a skate park," Crowe said. Her children go to Olney in Montgomery County now, she said.

Diane Goodridge used the comparative approach to argue for a large indoor pool.

"Anne Arundel has two. Montgomery has four. Prince George's has five ... and Howard has zero," she said.

Without a 50-meter pool, she said, Howard high school students and others on swim teams cannot properly train or compete. She argued against plans for a smaller indoor pool at the new North Laurel Community Center, saying it would be too small for competition and too close to pools in Prince George's County.

Others, including Stanley Daniello, Yen Li, and Audrey Shur, said they came just to say "thanks" to the county for supporting programs to benefit the disabled, to help immigrants adjust and to preserve small tracts of land, many with historic homes on them.

Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, was one of several speakers to urge Ulman to create the five-person Office of Environmental Sustainability he has proposed, and she had one other request.

She wanted Ulman to replace the bright blue wheeled recycling bins distributed in Elkridge with ones featuring earth-toned colors, such as green or gray.

"They're really an awful eyesore," she said of the blue bins.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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