Tough times at budget hearing

Citizens bring pet projects seeking money from county

December 20, 2009|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Dreams don't die, even in the worst recession in memory, which is why Sean Costello of Ellicott City brought his family to Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's annual budget hearing to bolster his plea for a 50-meter indoor swimming facility.

Costello and other pool boosters, along with people from Elkridge who want a new firehouse, a larger library, a new elementary school and a potential high school site, added to the often-heartfelt pleas from people representing service nonprofits not to cut already diminished state funding. That's not counting the standard defense of spending on county schools, libraries and Howard Community College, all of which see growing demands without growing revenue.

Bryan Booth of Ellicott City got so emotional that he had to pause in describing how much the outmoded Ellicott City library means to his seventh-grade son, who is teased by peers for reading so much but is greeted as a friend by library staff.

"He comes in and he's home," Booth said. A groundbreaking on a new, larger library and county historical center is expected in February.

All those pleas and more followed Ulman's gloomy opening remarks at the session at school board headquarters. Ulman will have another hearing in March before announcing his proposed budget in April. The new fiscal year starts July 1.

"As tough as it is this fiscal year, next fiscal year is even worse," the executive told a crowd of about 100 at the Wednesday night hearing. The county-funded portion of last fiscal year's operating budget was $854 million, which dropped to $820 million this year, and will likely drop to about $800 million next year, he said.

At the same time, as he and budget director Raymond S. Wacks had explained just that morning to Howard's contingent to the General Assembly at Ulman's annual legislative breakfast, the county faces about $12 million in reduced local and state revenue this year. But he must come up with $2 million more for next year's elections, about $7 million more to satisfy the state's mandatory per-student spending threshold under the school maintenance-of-effort law, plus higher retirement, health care and other inflationary costs. And since he can't cut schools, Ulman said all the cutting so far has come from about 30 percent of the budget he controls. There's really nothing easy left to cut, he said.

"We are now deep into the same situation you are in with very little if any revenue growth," Wacks told the eight General Assembly members Wednesday morning.

The message at the evening hearing was the same, if less detailed.

With the state having to cut another $2 billion for fiscal 2011, "certainly local governments have a target on our backs," Ulman told the budget hearing crowd. Even several Republican political candidates who spoke urging no tax increases acknowledged that Ulman knows the problem.

But that didn't discourage Costello or several other pool advocates, who have been pushing for a multimillion-dollar Olympic-quality indoor pool for several years. Ulman has been sympathetic in years past, but said nothing this time as they sought some sign that he would commit to the project when times improve.

"At least take a concrete step to make it a reality," Costello pleaded, flanked by his two middle-school-age sons. A pool would serve the county's large aquatic community and county high schools that have no swim teams, and it would attract revenue over time, he argued.

"At the risk of sounding like a broken record, dedicate a token amount of seed money - maybe $200,000 - as a statement of support" for a pool, urged Diane Goodridge.

But Ulman also heard from people like Mimi O'Donnell, president of the Board of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, the county's homeless shelter, who said requests for services are up 37 percent this year, and Harry Schwarz speaking for the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for more than 100 human service nonprofits.

He listed the huge funding losses from state cuts at a time when service demands are rising. That has meant two job cuts at Grassroots and less money for emergency motel rooms, the loss of interpreters for maternity clinic patients served by FIRN, which works with immigrants, and the loss of the Health Department's maternity clinic.

At the same time, school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said his enrollment is up but his budget is $400,000 less, and school board Chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles said the board needs every penny of the $99.9 million requested for capital expenses, half of which would go for renovations.

"I'm just glad you didn't ask for $100 million," Ulman said jokingly.

Howard Community College President Kathleen Hetherington said enrollment is up 12 percent this fall at her school, but the college needs a $12 million parking garage to make room for a new health sciences building.

"There is really no choice but to get through this together," college board president T. James Truby told Ulman, who was flanked on the dais by Wacks and Lonnie Robbins, the county's chief administrative officer.

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