Ulman's budget plan raises spending by 5%

$1.4 billion proposal increases fines and fees

April 23, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

The $1.4 billion budget plan unveiled yesterday by County Executive Ken Ulman curbs spending compared with last year, but residents face increased parking fines and rises in water, trash and other fees to help pay for the proposal.

The 5 percent increase in spending compared with last year is "the lowest in the last decade" with the exception of 2003, Ulman said before presenting his proposal -- the second of his administration -- to the County Council yesterday.

That figure refers to general fund revenues that come from taxpayers. Overall, spending is up 7.9 percent, still lower than last year's 10.7 percent increase over the previous year. The general fund portion of the county executive's plan accounts for $854 million.

Ulman credited "prudent spending" in past years with enabling the county to avoid the fate of other jurisdictions. Montgomery and Prince George's are wrestling to cut projected shortfalls of $400 million and $122 million, respectively.

The plan calls for a 6 percent pay increase for firefighters, a 5 percent increase for teachers and police, and 3 percent for all other county employees, Ulman said.

The county school system would get all but $4 million of its request, representing a 7.5 percent increase in spending that includes hiring 190 more school employees. Overall, the number of new county workers would rise by 234.

Of the $42 million in new general fund spending, county schools would get 89 percent. Ulman pointed out that part of the increase is for future retiree health benefits. Without that factor, the spending increase for schools is about 6 percent.

School officials seemed resigned to the cut in their request.

"We put forth a budget request we believe we need," school board Chairman Frank Aquino said. But he added that the plan "still represents a substantial investment in public education."

Raymond Brown, the school system's chief operating officer, said, "All things considered, I think we did reasonably well."

Property and income tax rates remain unchanged, but homeowners will pay more because of rising state assessments. That means $127 more for a house assessed at $250,000, or $228 more for a $450,000 house. Still the county's 5 percent assessment cap will save taxpayers $108 million next fiscal year.

Ulman's plan calls for increased costs for water and sewer to be passed on to homeowners to the tune of about $50 a year, and parking fines would rise from $20 to $35. Handicapped-space or fire-lane violations would bring stiffer increases -- from $150 to $250 for the former and from $50 to $150 for the latter.

Raymond S. Wacks, the budget director, said the county reviews various agencies' fees on a rotating basis, and law enforcement fines were reviewed this year.

Most homeowners would pay $50 more for trash and recycling services that now cost $175 annually. Residents in the western county would pay about $35 more because they do not get yard-waste recycling service. Low-income homeowners would get 60 percent off the fee.

As part of the plan, residents who want them would receive bins for recyclables.

Ulman also proposes hiring 22 police officers and two more police employees -- part of his plan to boost the county police by 100 officers during his term in office.

In community services, the executive boosted spending by 9.5 percent, mainly to buy 14 hybrid buses for Howard Transit and to provide $500,000 in county funding for his proposed Healthy Howard health care-access program for the uninsured. "We have no choice but to upgrade our fleet," Ulman said. "We've got to have a fleet that's reliable."

He noted money-saving moves, too, including eliminating the county government's cable TV studio and staff, and closing the government's printing office -- a combined 20 percent reduction in administration costs and a savings of about $1.2 million. Another $600,000 in added revenue will come from county collection of fees now handled by the Circuit Court clerk's office.

"We really tried to squeeze where we could," Ulman said.

Council members were wary yesterday of judging the plan before having time to study it, but a few early impressions emerged.

"I'm not at all in favor of increasing the trash fee, but we'll take a look at that," said Chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.

However, East Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball defended the trash fee request and Ulman's budget proposal, in general.

"I think he did a really good job of having a restrained budget that still represents our values and community priorities," he said. Ball asked where a critic of the trash fee would cut to eliminate the need for an increase.

Jen Terrasa, a Kings Contrivance Democrat, said she approves of making police and community services "a priority in tough times."

Last year's budget benefited from a record $38 million surplus left from the previous fiscal year. That surplus is expected to drop to $13.7 million when this year's books are closed June 30.

Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, pointed to last year's higher spending growth in criticizing Ulman's claims of frugality this year.

"That doesn't hold much water coming off one of the highest [increases] in a decade," Fox said.

The final council vote is scheduled for May 22.

The council has scheduled a public hearing for education, library and community college budgets, starting at 4 p.m. Tuesday, and on the rest of the budget at 7 p.m. April 30, in the George Howard Building.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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