Ulman, council jockey on budget

May 21, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

With final budget votes scheduled tomorrow, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is maneuvering to shore up support for his priorities with Howard County Council members by making several concessions. Still, the outcome remains unclear on several issues, including whether the county will buy into a proposed office building considered the key to the revitalization of Oakland Mills Village Center.

Ulman backed off a contested proposal to sell 26 acres of county-owned land on Martha Bush Drive in Ellicott City, and is not opposing a council move to restore a $1.7 million shortfall in expected state school construction aid to the school board. In addition, Ulman backed off a plan to extend a sewer line through small woodlands in Ellicott City vehemently opposed by nearby residents in the Spring Ridge Homeowners Association.

"I'm thrilled. These two issues were my No. 1 priorities with the budget," said council Chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, about the sewer line and the Martha Bush sale.

"I was pleased to see the cooperation," said Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Even Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican sharply critical of several Ulman initiatives, conceded that "it's a move in the right direction."

Fox is campaigning to block county purchase of 15,000 square feet of office space in the proposed Meridian Square office building that Ulman wants to help revitalize Oakland Mills Village Center, and he opposes the executive's plans to spend $3 million on large, wheeled recycling bins to give away to residents who want them.

Still, Fox and Watson have offered a combined 22 budget amendments outlining their priorities.

The administration's moves all involve the capital budget, which pays for construction projects, not the operating budget. If the council approves tomorrow, the property and income tax rates will remain unchanged in the $1.4 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2009, which starts July 1.

The Martha Bush site is one of three county-owned properties the admistration wanted to sell to fund the renovation of the George Howard Building, which houses the county executive and County Council's offices. The sale of the other two parcels, which include a 24-acre site on Rogers Avenue off U.S. 40 and a former school building in Clarksville, could raise $17 million to $20 million, if approved.

Ulman earlier gave up a proposed $260 million redevelopment of the government complex site as too expensive.

"I feel we've got a consensus among the majority of the council members to move forward. I think we listened and reacted to the concerns that needed to be addressed," Ulman said.

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said Ulman's moves required the shifting of funds from several other capital projects to cover the $4 million the county had hoped to get from selling the Martha Bush property, just behind the District Court building, and to give the school board more construction funding.

Officials believe they will get an extra $1 million from the sale of the old Gateway school on Route 108 in Clarksville because it is on a prime commercial site in a busy, growing area. Another $1.3 million would be shifted from plans for a replacement for the Banneker Fire Station in Columbia because no site for a new station has been chosen. About $244,000 was left over from renovations to the county's 911 center, and $471,000 would come from funds set aside to buy land in the flood plain. Wacks said no such purchases are expected next fiscal year. A reduction in road resurfacing funding would bring $650,000 more, and $1 million more would come in seven transfers from a variety of other sources in the budget, Wacks said.

None of that mollified Fox, however, who argued that not buying into Meridian Square and abandoning plans to buy the new recycling bins would help finance the county's other plans without selling precious land in a down market.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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