Ulman Seeking Ways To Cut Howard Budget

New Round Of $250 Million In State Cuts Is Expected

August 23, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

A looming new round of $250 million in cuts in state aid to local governments has Howard County officials searching for ways to absorb the reductions, though County Executive Ken Ulman said he does not yet know their exact scope.

Meanwhile, he is meeting with county budget director Raymond S. Wacks to look for more ways to save money. The county lost $14.5 million last spring in state funding for the current fiscal year, prompting Ulman to impose furloughs, lay off several employees, limit pay raises, leave some vacant jobs unfilled and trim general fund spending by about 4 percent.

Those are obvious ways to cut expenses, Ulman said, and he's re-emphasizing the point with department heads. But that brings up a problem.

"We've already done a lot of these things," he said, such as curbing travel and purchases.

"Ray is combing through the numbers," to find more options, Ulman said, noting that he's glad that the cuts are coming two months into the fiscal year instead of halfway through.

Gov. Martin O'Malley told local officials Aug. 15 at the annual Maryland Association of Counties Convention in Ocean City that the state Board of Public Works should make decisions on the cuts Aug. 26, likely leaving K-12 education funding alone while cutting money for community colleges, health, police and highways.

"I'm very, very concerned," said County Council member Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat. "These are very much quality-of-life areas."

Ulman said that if primary education is immune from cuts, the state has about $1 billion in aid to counties and cities that is under scrutiny. The Board of Public Works may cut up to 25 percent during a budget year, which is how Ulman thinks the $250 million figure emerged.

Ulman said state cuts to the county Health Department and community colleges will have to be borne by those agencies directly, while he must decide which road projects to delay or eliminate and how to protect vital police operations by cutting in other areas.

He noted that state highway money to the county has already been reduced for this year. The county could dip into its nearly $50 million rainy day fund, he said, but his worry is that next fiscal year could be worse and that the option might be needed then.

That could force scrutiny of county schools, he said. "At some point, there's only so much squeezing you can do if you hold education harmless."

Howard County's health officer, Dr. Peter Beilenson, said his agency lost seven state employees and six contract workers as the fiscal year began in July. "We literally are cut to the bone," he said. "Really, seriously, we're going to have to cut stuff we've offered for years, that people have come to expect," he said, without offering specifics.

Beilenson said he's particularly worried about a possible H1N1 flu pandemic this fall, and whether the agency will have enough trained people to deal with that or some other disaster.

Kate Hetherington, president of Howard Community College, said she expects enrollment to increase about 14 percent this fall, with financial aid applications up 27 percent, while tuition, already one of the highest in Maryland at $114 per credit, has not gone up over the past two years

Further state cuts would force the college to use more part-time instructors while leaving other posts unfilled and limiting registration to some courses. The college has 200 applicants for nursing training on a waiting list, she said.

Howard County received $3.4 million in state police aid this year, officials said.

For Greg Fox, the County Council's only Republican and a persistent critic of Ulman's spending priorities, it's a case of "I told you so."

While Ulman often talks about cuts he's made, including eliminating the county print shop and television studio and cutting use of take-home vehicles, Fox, who cast the lone vote against the county's $1.4 billion budget, said Ulman has added employees and spending that might now have to be eliminated.

"Through three budget cycles, I said we needed to be ready for state pushdowns," Fox said, criticizing Ulman spending on new county workers and for programs such as Healthy Howard and the blue recycling bins. Fox supported Healthy Howard in its first year, but pushed for reduced county spending on the program this fiscal year.

Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, also has expressed unease at new spending, but has supported Healthy Howard. She noted the millions of dollars in operating budget funds that Howard Community College spent on the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge instead of getting it from private donors as promised.

"The first year we were in office was probably the year to tighten the belt," Watson said, noting that no one foresaw the severity of the U.S. financial meltdown.

Ulman has created more than 50 police positions, though some were funded by grants, and has filled some vacancies on his staff. He created an environmental policy job that was filled by Josh Feldmark, a former County Council candidate.

"Once you add, it's so much harder to take away," Fox said.

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