The Ellicott City Senior Center is not yet six years old but is already overcrowded, members told County Executive Ken Ulman yesterday.
"We're bursting at the seams," said Velva Howard, president of the Ellicott City Senior Center Council.
Ulman held the county's first-ever daytime budget hearing at the Frederick Road building yesterday afternoon, an idea suggested by Ruth Watkins, 83, who was the first of five speakers among about 40 seniors who attended. Many seniors don't go out at night, and those attending yesterday's session clearly appreciated the chance to have their say.
The center had 500 members enrolled when the 12,500-square-foot building opened in May 2002. Last year, the center had more than 800 members and 29,000 visitors, said center director Carla Buehler.
Thirty members joined last month, Howard said.
Howard said the center's exercise room holds 20 people but that more than 100 are signed up for exercise classes. People have to wait two or three months to get in, Howard said.
"We feel we've outgrown everything," she said.
Before Ulman arrived, Watkins testified before county Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks and Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins that the county devotes 1.53 percent of its annual operating budget to senior services for the fastest-growing demographic in the county. That is not nearly enough, she said.
"I didn't make that up. That's what I was told over the telephone," said Watkins. "I do believe we could do a little bit better than 1.53 percent."
Watkins said she is legally blind and that the county should employ more people to supply services for vision-impaired people.
In addressing her comments, Ulman said seniors get services through other county agencies, such as emergency medical services through the Fire Department. But he agreed that Watkins had a point.
"We're a victim of our success, which is a good problem to have," he said.
He told the group that he hopes to include construction funding for a larger library next to the center, replacing the branch that is there now, and said he plans to have a senior center budget hearing each year.
The center has impressed even skeptical seniors, one said.
Tom Flinn, 76, said he was initially leery of participating in a weekly men's group at the center but now he likes it. "I'm beginning to think I'm not a senior, that I'm 20 or 21," he said.
"I feel 76," Ulman said, laughing.
"I understand," Flinn replied.
Ulman is to reveal his proposed capital budget by April 1 and his operating budget request two weeks later. The County Council has until June 1 to make changes. The fiscal year begins July 1.
The executive faces a daunting task this year, with requests for school renovations and additions threatening to overwhelm the county's ability to finance construction projects.
On the operating side, Ulman has announced that he will eliminate the county's cable television studio, saving an estimated $500,000 next fiscal year. That could be enough to pay for the first year of his ambitious Healthy Howard health access plan for uninsured residents, but Ulman said he wants to hire dozens more police officers and expand his recycling program by distributing more large, wheeled recycling carts to residents.
But the slowing economy is shrinking the county's projected end-of-year surplus, now estimated at $13.7 million, and the government's Spending Affordability Committee has warned that at current levels of spending, revenues might not match expenses for fiscal 2009.
Lower interest rates accompanying the economic slowdown are helping the county in one respect, however. Last week, the county sold $111.5 million in bonds and got a 3.99 percent interest rate on $107.5 million of 20-year general obligation securities. The previous March, the county got a 4.15 percent interest rate Finance Director Sharon F. Greisz said. The remaining $4.1 million in utility bonds were sold at a 4.27 percent interest rate, she said.
Howard County's AAA bond rating, reaffirmed this month by all three New York rating agencies, means that the county pays lower interest rates on bond borrowing than do jurisdictions with lower ratings.