County Budget Nears An Ok

$1.4 Billion Spending Plan Appears Likely To Go Through Without Major Changes

May 17, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Although last-minute alterations are possible, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's $1.4 billion budget appears headed for approval Wednesday without major changes by the five-member County Council.

The council finished its annual agency-by-agency review Tuesday without members offering any new suggestions for cuts or additions. Another meeting was scheduled Friday, and any council amendments to the budget legislation must be submitted by Monday. A final work session is scheduled Monday night at school board headquarters if more discussion is needed.

The dismal fiscal outlook that forced furloughs, nine layoffs and a 4 percent cut in general fund spending appeared to leave members with little appetite for further moves.

"I will not be offering suggestions that will cut the budget," said Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat.

Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks told members that he's hoping the county ends the fiscal year with a tiny surplus, but he's holding back $1.5 million in money that was intended to help pay for future retiree health benefits to make sure.

"We think we're very close to break-even," he said. Another $8.5 million intended for that same purpose went instead to plug holes in the fiscal 2010 budget, as revenues continued to decline.

If things had gotten any worse, Wacks said, the county's never-touched $48 million rainy-day fund would have been tapped.

Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, said county officials will have to be careful when approving capital projects to account for operating expenses, such as utility costs and salaries for people to staff new buildings.

"Every single way you look at it, we have to scale back," said Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.

Sigaty then asked what a larger library to be constructed in Ellicott City will cost to operate when it opens in fiscal 2011. Wacks pledged to develop better methods of calculating those kinds of cost increases in advance.

"We know you're dealing with tough times," Fox said.

The four- and five-day furloughs of 1,815 county employees will save $1.8 million, though council members noted that, in addition to county firefighters and police below the rank of sergeant, no nonteaching, high-salaried school board employees are included. The board is negotiating a contract for next year with the teachers union. The board included $5 million in the budget for a 1 percent pay raise for teachers.

By contrast, furloughed county employees will lose 1.5 percent of their pay and get no cost-of-living raise next fiscal year.

A few minor issues remain unresolved.

Sigaty said she will be talking to Ulman about ways to reconstitute an alternative sentencing program without using county funds. The 15-year-old program administered by county Sheriff James Fitzgerald is ending July 1, saving $467,000. Fitzgerald said the program, which monitors people assigned community service for minor offenses by county judges, is too difficult to run and lightly used.

Fox said he is still looking at a few "minor things," such as another way to cut funding from the Healthy Howard health access plan for uninsured county residents. Fox on Monday suggested cutting at least half the proposed $500,000 in county funds for the program, but drew no support from other members.

Health officer Peter Beilenson told the council Monday that state cuts will cost his office nearly $1 million and, together with county reductions, force seven layoffs. He said more state cuts are likely in fiscal 2010. He defended county funding for Healthy Howard, arguing that as a pilot program with great potential, it needs significant cash reserves.

Watson said she also may have a proposal or two, but offered no specifics beyond urging the administration to reverse plans to remove a staff person at the Elkridge Senior Center. Only $12,000 in county funds is needed to prevent that, according to Wacks.

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