'Decent Budget In A Bad Time'

Ulman's $1.4 Billion Proposal Includes Furloughs, Layoffs, Service Cuts

April 26, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Furloughs, layoffs and budget cuts in every department except schools in the $1.4 billion budget proposed by County Executive Ken Ulman don't mean the government will disappear starting July 1. But residents will surely see and feel the difference, officials say.

And while government spending would fall by 1.5 percent, most residents will pay more for reduced services, though neither the income nor property tax rates are to rise. Homeowners' property tax bills still would go up about 5 percent on average under the county's cap on rising state assessments, and water and sewer bills would rise an average of $10.95 per quarter for a family of four using city water, officials said. The county is also skipping a year's payment for retiree health benefits required by federal accounting rules.

If things don't improve by next spring, Ulman said, the Rainy Day Fund, slated to rise to $54.7 million, might have to be used for the first time since its creation in the early 1990s. Still, the executive said he is proud of being able to provide money for basic needs such as education, public safety and the poor, and avoiding more serious cuts.

"The decision to lay off and furlough county employees was the most difficult one I had to make," Ulman told the County Council in his speech on the budget proposal Monday night.

"I think it's a decent budget in a bad time," said council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat.

School employees are not subject to furloughs, unless the school board decides otherwise. School officials are contemplating $7.8 million in state and county cuts to the budget that the school board requested in February, but spending there would rise $2.7 million in Ulman's plan. That compares with the $44 million increase for the current fiscal year's budget, said Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.

State officials held back much of the $10 million in federal stimulus funding schools were to receive to help pay for teachers' pension costs, Cousin said.

The council can restore Ulman's $3.6 million in reductions to the board's request, but only if it finds money to pay for them.

Meanwhile, teachers union President Ann DeLacy is pushing hard for a cost-of-living pay raise for her members.

"We absolutely, positively have not given up on getting raises. We believe there's plenty of slush money lying around at the Board of Education," she said, noting vehicles used by school system employees as a possible example.

Cousin denied there was waste there, saying that most take-home vehicles are work trucks used by custodians and maintenance workers.

Meanwhile, other services and events that residents have become used to hearing about will be no more.

The drive-through flu shot clinic that the health officer, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, brags is the biggest in the nation won't happen this fall, he told the council, and $250,000 taken from tobacco settlement money by the state means fewer smoking-cessation classes.

"It's decimated our tobacco program," Beilenson told the council Monday. "It's now gotten to the point where we're cutting bone."

Still, Ulman included $500,000 to continue support for the Healthy Howard health access program, which Beilenson said had enrolled 250 residents and found health coverage for 2,400 uninsured residents since enrollment started in October.

After adding 54 police officers in the past two years, none will be added this year, slowing Ulman's push to get 100 more officers on the streets.

Services may be cut at Elkridge Senior Center, and county libraries will open at 10 a.m. instead of at 9 a.m. each day.

Public Works Director James M. Irvin told the council that service calls for things such as trimming trees that block road signs, repainting road and crosswalk stripes and other routine jobs will take longer to complete. The department has 19 vacant jobs that won't be funded or filled.

The $3 million he expects in federal stimulus money for highways will replace the funds held back this fiscal year, he said, without helping in fiscal 2010.

But while helping in one respect, the federal government is hurting the county on another long-sought project - adding a third northbound lane on congested U.S. 29 south of Route 175. Federal regulations require sound walls for the project, Irvin said, and the $50 million cost of the walls dwarfs the $20 million cost of widening the road.

With the once-a-decade revision of the county's General Plan due, Planning Director Marsha S. McLaughlin said she will have five vacant positions in her department that she cannot fill.

Look for larger areas of uncut grass on recreation playing fields and fewer special events. The October Sunday in the Park event will be canceled unless private funding can be found, said Gary J. Arthur, the parks and recreation director. The county will no longer remove downed trees from open space, letting them decay in place.

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