Robey urges Ulman to alter state's view of county finances

Political Notebook

December 30, 2007|By Larry Carson

As state and county governments confront lean financial times, state Sen. James N. Robey, a former Howard County executive, has urged current County Executive Ken Ulman to take action to change the state's view of the county's fiscal situation.

Robey's comments to his fellow Democrat came at a congenial 90-minute breakfast that Ulman organized with local and state legislators Friday in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City to go over issues that are expected to arise in next month's General Assembly session.

"The perception in Annapolis is that you are in much better [financial] shape than the state government is," he said, an idea grounded partly in the 3 percent to 6 percent pay raises that Ulman agreed to pay county employees last spring, compared with the 2 percent that state workers are getting.

That could create an atmosphere that could promote more state budget cuts, Robey said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is to cut $550 million in current spending as he crafts the next fiscal year's state budget, under the agreement reached in last month's special session.

"You're going to have to make some cuts - cut nonessential services," Robey urged at the meeting, attended by six of the county's 11 state legislators and top county officials.

County Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks had set the stage with a review of Howard's financial posture compared with others and a bit of what is coming for the budget year that begins July 1.

"There seems to be this impression in Annapolis that local governments are fat and happy and can take further cuts," said Wacks, who expects the next budget year to be tough locally.

Events such as the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last week, as well as other terrorist acts and more mundane concerns such as rising fuel and energy prices "could have a long-range impact on the Maryland economy," Wacks said.

"Last year, the school system got $26 million more in state funding" as part of the Thornton Commission reform program, Wacks said, but this spring, officials are expecting a $5 million increase.

"The struggle we have in front of us is to maintain services without raising taxes," Wacks said.

Robey's comments followed Wacks' report that Howard is faring better financially than some other counties, thanks to conservative revenue estimates and use of surplus funds for one-time expenses.

By contrast, Montgomery County is facing a $70 million shortfall by June 30, and other local governments have imposed spending cuts and job freezes.

The county can count on a steady 5 percent to 6 percent annual increase in property tax revenues based on growing home values, but Wacks said income tax receipts can fluctuate, especially if a relatively few very wealthy taxpayers change or delay their payments.

Gary Arthur, director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks, said reductions in transfer-tax revenues because of the slow real estate market also have carved a two-thirds cut in Program Open Space funding, which comes from that revenue.

There is irony in all this, several people noted.

Robey recalled criticism that he took for raising Howard's income tax rate 30 percent in 2004, and Ulman, who voted for the increase, said it is now obvious that a tough vote was needed.

"If you take away that increase, we're in a much different position," Ulman said. "I think we're doing the prudent thing."

He said he must pay police, firefighters and teachers well because of intense competition for quality employees from other jurisdictions.

Several officials mentioned that the state hasn't followed that model, instead cutting income taxes in the face of an economic recession and then keeping state pay increases low. That led to the projected revenue shortfall that prompted the General Assembly to increase the sales tax and extend it to cover computer services.

"We understand the pressures," said Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican who formerly worked in county government. "I get frustrated that people take pride in low state salaries."

But Bates and state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, also a Republican, had warnings about the higher taxes on sales and computer services enacted by the recent special session of the General Assembly, which could affect the county's treasury.

"Big-money people are leaving to go to Florida," Kittleman said, explaining that several constituents have told him that they live in Florida part time and might convert to full-time residents.

Bates said the owner of a computer services company told her of doing something similar, if the General Assembly leaves that portion of the sales tax intact.

The other state legislators at the meeting were Dels. Elizabeth Bobo, Steven J. DeBoy Sr. and Shane Pendergrass, all Democrats.

Robey, county police Chief William McMahon and Ulman made another pitch to the legislators for a bill to authorize speed cameras on county roadways with speed limits of up to 45 mph.

McMahon said he is working on a model plan to present to the delegation next month to show how the county proposes to operate such a system.

He would use stationary camera locations and a mobile van in some places to catch speeders, but the county would put up signs - especially at the county's borders - to warn motorists to slow down.

Old Frederick Road (Route 99) in Ellicott City is a prime candidate for the cameras, he said.

"I think you need to drive home an important message," McMahon said, adding that a county police officer would have final say on whether every photograph represents a violation. The cameras would typically allow some margin above the posted speed limit.

"My goal is not to catch people or to make money but to make people slow down," McMahon told the legislators.

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