Howard Budget Includes Furlough

County Government Would All But Close Dec. 25-31 To Save Money

April 21, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Howard County's government would save money by all but closing for a week in December under a proposed $1.4 billion budget that includes the biggest spending cuts in nearly two decades.

All but essential county services would be shut down the week between Christmas and New Year's, so employees could be furloughed for four or five days under the plan proposed Monday by County Executive Ken Ulman. Nine employees would lose their jobs under the proposal.

The property tax rate ($1.014 per $100 of assessed value) would not increase, but tax bills are expected to, because of rising assessments. Water and sewer charges would increase 6 percent.

No money for cost-of-living pay raises for workers was included, except for firefighters. If revenues don't improve by next year, the county could dip into a "rainy day" fund that now contains $48.7 million.

"This is one of the toughest processes I've had to work through," Ulman said before making his formal presentation to the County Council.

Ulman proposes a four-day furlough for county workers, with one additional day for department heads. He also asked elected officials to voluntarily give back five days' worth of pay to show solidarity with county employees.

County Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said he would return five days of pay, "given that we're asking our employees to take one for the team."

Three of the layoffs, in the Health Department, would come because of a $14.5 million cut in state aid. Four sheriff's office employees would be laid off from an alternative sentencing program that Ulman said is supposed to be self-supporting from fees but that has been little used.

And 50 unfilled county jobs would be left vacant.

Ulman, a Democrat, said he cut money to virtually every department but did not reduce the $4.8 million in grants to human service nonprofits. He also proposed adding $40,000 in emergency assistance for people in crisis.

He cut $300,000 from libraries and did not add money for any new police officers after hiring 50 in the past two years. The budget includes $500,000 for the Healthy Howard health access plan for uninsured county residents.

County officials have said income tax revenues are expected to decline next fiscal year for only the second time since the local share of the tax took effect more than 40 years ago.

County firefighters were due a 6 percent pay raise under a four-year contract they negotiated in 2007, but the fire union tentatively agreed earlier to delay that increase by six months. Federal grants would pay for 12 new firefighters who will staff new modular firestations proposed for Glenwood and Jessup.

Howard joins some other area governments in proposing spending plans that include layoffs, furloughs and other cuts.

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon has proposed laying off as many as 153 workers, closing recreation centers and swimming pools, and reducing library hours. Harford County Executive David R. Craig's budget proposal calls for many county employees to take five unpaid furlough days.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold said his county is set to eliminate more than 100 vacant jobs, as well as dip into its rainy day fund for the first time as it tries to avoid layoffs.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s budget proposal includes a modest increase in water and sewer rates, but it gives raises to teachers and other county employees and avoids layoffs and furloughs.

In Howard County, the $820.2 million general fund portion of the budget proposal represents a 4 percent cut from the current fiscal year's spending plan. The cut would be the steepest since 1992, officials said.

School funding would rise $2.7 million, the minimum required under the state's maintenance-of-effort law. Howard, unlike some local governments, did not ask for a waiver of the law, which ties local spending for schools to state aid. For the current fiscal year, education spending rose $44 million, school officials said.

Teachers union President Ann DeLacy said she has not given up on getting cost-of-living-pay raises for her members, saying money can be found. "One place to look is in transportation," she said.

The County Council has until June 1 to adopt a capital and an operating budget for the fiscal year that begins in July. The $392 million capital budget proposal was announced April 1, and the council is to hold a work session on it Tuesday.

2010 HOWARD BUDGET

Taxes: No rate increases

Water and sewer fees: 6 percent increase costing $10.95 per quarter for a family of four

Cost-of-living raises: None for most county workers. Firefighters get 6 percent Jan. 1. Teachers still negotiating.

Total operating budget: $1.4 billion, a $21.2 million decrease

Capital budget: $392 million

Total education expense: $788.5 million

Source: Howard County government

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