County To Feel Pain Of Cuts

Howard Facing Halt To Road Work, Higher School Costs, Flu Risk As Md. Trims Budget

August 30, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Howard County residents could face a higher risk of swine flu, an immediate halt to road repaving and higher costs at Howard Community College this winter because of the loss of $8.3 million more in state funding announced last week.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the county health officer, said he would have to lay off up to 10 people and end some services at county clinics, such as programs for smoking cessation, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, and cancer, tuberculosis and other screenings. The effect of the cuts will be magnified, he said, because most savings must be squeezed from cuts that cannot be imposed until the second half of the fiscal year, which began July 1.

"We will clearly be less able to handle H1N1," he said. Beilenson and County Executive Ken Ulman said they are talking about seeing whether Fire Department medical technicians can help in the event of a flu outbreak, though it might involve overtime pay.

Beilenson noted that his relatively small office has undergone six state funding cuts in two years, with a total of $3 million in reduced funding.

"You're really cutting safety net service," he said.

Howard Community College President Kate Hetherington said the college has endured repeated cuts, and this one will wipe out all but $40,000 in increased state funding for this academic year, while enrollment is expected to increase 14 percent in September. Tuition increases could lie ahead in the winter semester, she said, along with fewer full-time faculty members and cuts in services.

But clearly Ulman faces the biggest burden.

"My priority is, I do not want to sacrifice public safety," Ulman said after spending several hours Wednesday with key department heads.

With county workers already scheduled for a four- to five-day unpaid furlough between Christmas and New Year's, and all the easy cuts and savings used in prior rounds of reductions, Ulman said administration officials are poring over every line of the budget looking for more.

"We're immediately suspending all road resurfacing," he said, which will save $2.4 million. The county Health Department is to undergo $654,259 in cuts, and Howard Community College must absorb $653,174. But that leaves about $4.6 million more in cuts without any ability to take money from the school budget that makes up about 60 percent of county spending.

"I'm one of the biggest proponents of public education, but it becomes an equity issue," Ulman said, when the rest of government continues to shrink but education is left untouched.

The county cannot cut school spending because of the state's maintenance of effort rule, which ties large amounts of state education aid to any spending reductions beneath the previous year's totals.

Officials also worry that the local share of income tax collections will be lower even than conservative projections made last spring, worsening the problem. The numbers are due out in about a month.

Extreme measures such as canceling fire or police recruit classes or dipping into the $48.7 million rainy-day fund are possibilities, but not ones that Ulman wants to consider now, he said.

"Is it raining?" he asked. "I don't see this getting better anytime soon."

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