Budget cuts are debated

Council members undecided on changes to Ulman plan

May 16, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

With less than a week until final budget votes, no consensus has emerged among Howard County Council members on whether to make changes in County Executive Ken Ulman's $1.4 billion budget.

During another two-hour discussion late Wednesday, only Council Chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, and Fulton Republican Greg Fox appeared interested in making cuts, though west Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty said she'd consider cutting a $400,000 wellness program for county employees. Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, offered to consider any cuts Watson might suggest.

Sigaty, likely the key vote on contentious issues such as approving the county purchase of one floor of the proposed Meridian Square office building in Oakland Mills or in making any operating budget cuts, said she hasn't made any final decisions.

Watson said she is upset at the thought that growing revenue pressures could squeeze the county so hard in the fiscal year starting July 1, 2010, that granting county workers cost-of-living raises would put the county into a deficit situation. To help forestall that, she's interested in making some cuts, as is Fox. Both are likely to offer budget-cutting amendments.

But while they can cut spending and even redirect some to schools, they can't force Ulman to do specific things - such as postpone or slow down spending $3 million in surplus funds on new wheeled recycling bins for all county residents who want them.

"The bottom line is, that's what they're doing, and we can't stop it," Fox said. Last year, Fox voted against the county budget.

Watson said she supports more environmentally friendly programs but is worried about the expense.

"I understand the need to go green - recycling bins, hybrid [Howard Transit] buses, Platinum [green certification] on the Robinson Nature Center. I just think we need to chill out a little bit" on the expense, she said.

"My own comfort level [on spending] is not the same as the executive's," Watson added at one point. She decried the hiring of 10 county employees to replace contract workers during the current budget year without notifying the council until this week.

"It's unacceptable," she said.

East Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball noted that "everybody has concerns about our future obligations," but he sided with county budget director Raymond S. Wacks, who has said that if fiscal problems crop up for 2010, they can be dealt with in next spring's budget review.

Ball said that lowering the environmental rating for the proposed Robinson Nature Center to save $800,000 could be hard to explain in a decade when environmental concerns have grown even more important.

Administration officials say that buying the recycling bins is key to Ulman's strategy for boosting recycling and reducing expensive trash disposal before the county's disposal contract expires in 2013.

Ball is also a strong backer of the Meridian Square purchase, which Ulman chief of staff Aaron Greenfield described to the council as an effort to help revitalize the Oakland Mills Village Center while also providing new office space for county workers.

Another contentious point involves Ulman's proposal for paying for a major renovation of the George Howard Building. The executive hopes to raise about $20 million of the cost by selling two undeveloped parcels of land near the county office complex, along with the old Gateway school site in Clarksville on Route 108.

The council's final budget votes are scheduled Thursday.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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