County outlines somber financial picture

Officials seek ways to make up for $13 million shortfall

February 21, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

The Ulman administration is working to make up for a projected revenue shortfall of about $13 million by June 30, and county budget director Raymond S. Wacks doesn't expect relief from local income tax receipts or the weather.

Wacks painted a somber picture for fiscal year 2011 to members of the county's Spending Affordability Committee on Thursday morning as the citizens group moves closer to making recommendations next month on spending and borrowing. County Executive Ken Ulman is preparing his budget for the year that begins July 1. He's to announce his plans in April.

Wacks said a state payment of income tax proceeds is scheduled to be announced Wednesday, and that will indicate how good or bad the news will be for the rest of the fiscal year.

"I'm waiting with bated breath for that February number," Wacks said, though his hopes aren't high.

"The worst years [for revenues] may be ahead," Wacks said. "My sense is we should not be looking for any growth in income tax revenues."

Ed Waddell, an accountant and committee member who does a lot of personal tax returns, said he's seeing the same indicators.

"I don't see any capital gains, and dividends and interest income is down for retirees. There's nothing significant on the horizon," he said.

Economists have told the group things will turn around locally next year, when federal defense and cyber security jobs are expected to flood the area, but even that, if it happens, will take several years to boost county revenue.

Ulman told a group of worried human service nonprofit leaders that the twin heavy snowstorms have cost the county between $2 million and $3 million, though final figures aren't ready and more snow is predicted for this week.

"This certainly wasn't helpful," he told about 75 people at a breakfast appearance in Oakland Mills. County general fund revenues - the money raised by local taxes - totaled $854 million in fiscal 2009, but dropped to $820 million this year, and are expected to decline to $800 million in fiscal 2011, he said.

Wacks elaborated on some impending debts to the committee members.

The county plans to resume annual payments for future retiree health benefits in fiscal 2012, but will need to contribute about $65 million a year to get back on track after suspending the payments for two years because of the recession, according to finance director Sharon Greisz. There's $20 million in that fund now, Wacks said.

The good news, according to Greisz, is that Howard is doing more to satisfy this change in national accounting rules than are most other counties in the nation, given the hard economic times.

"We have made a big step forward," she said. The county now pays for retiree health benefits as the bills come due. The new rules require putting money aside for future retirees while they're still working.

If that weren't enough, the long-term contract that limits trash collection costs to $33 a ton expires in 2013, when the bill is expected to nearly triple per ton. That's why the county is pushing recycling, Wacks said.

One thing he's not too worried about is more cuts in direct state aid.

"The good news from the county's view is there's almost nothing left to cut in direct aid," he said. State aid for highway repairs was already cut 90 percent, and the county suspended repaving in response.

But Howard County still has an untouched $48 million rainy-day fund, and Wacks said he's trying to find ways to shift money between agencies to wipe out the projected shortfall without dipping into the fund.

The committee is to meet again Thursday.

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