Officials unveil $211 million Howard County budget

Proposal would involve schools, parks, fire stations

April 04, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

The recession isn't stopping Howard County Executive Ken Ulman from continuing with a series of ambitious projects involving schools, parks and fire stations in a $211.2 million capital budget announced Thursday.

Instead of talking to County Council members about his plan for fiscal 2011, however, Ulman spent the day at Howard County General Hospital after suffering a severe nosebleed in his office Thursday morning, said spokesman Kevin Enright. The bleeding was brought under control, Enright said, but Ulman remained hospitalized for observation.

The capital budget plan is now before the council, which plans a public hearing at 7 p.m. April 13 at school board headquarters, though the hearing will not include school projects. Ulman's proposed operating budget is due for release April 22, and the council has until June 1 to make cuts or changes.

The proposal includes a request for authorization to sell $99.7 million in bonds, a level recommended by the volunteer Spending Affordability Committee.

Schools would get $68.1 million, including $16.4 million in state funds (including $1.7 million not granted yet). That's down from the school board's $93 million request. Still, school officials were not complaining.

"We all know what the economic situation is," said school board Chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles, who was "pleased" that the county funded as much as it did.

"This is a budget about completing what we've started," said county budget director Raymond S. Wacks. "There's not a lot of money for new projects."

Ulman said in a prepared message to the council that despite the recession, the county must continue to make progress. "This budget helps position Howard County to come out of this recession stronger than ever," he said.

County Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said that she and other members have not studied the proposal, but she was pleased that money for Troy Hill Park and for long-awaited sidewalks along St. Johns Lane in her district was included. Overall, she said, "it appears to be reasonable."

But Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, said he's worried about $20 million not in the budget proposal that's needed to help pay for the ongoing renovation of the county's George Howard building in Ellicott City. Some of the renovation money was to come from the sale of two valuable surplus properties, and neither sale has occurred. The county is negotiating with a purchaser for a former school building on seven acres along Route 108 in Clarksville. The other site is 25 undeveloped acres on Rogers Avenue, near the county complex. County government has been occupying rented office space in Columbia since November 2008.

Even if the surplus properties are sold now, what happens if the prices are too low to pay for the renovations, Fox wondered.

"The question is how does the administration plan to cover this?"

Enright replied, "We are confident these properties will be sold within the next year. In the meantime, we are covering the renovation costs with cash flow."

Ulman's overall budget plan includes a $6.3 million down payment on the planned $58 million renovation of Atholton High School, and $2.7 million to plan a building and buy a site for a new elementary school along the U.S. 1 corridor. Another $4.8 million would pay for an addition at crowded Bellows Spring Elementary in Elkridge.

Nearly $38 million of the funds for schools would go for renovations throughout the system to heating and cooling equipment, new windows and repairs to fire prevention sprinklers. That category took a $16 million cut, however, half of which was to pay for renovations to school board headquarters on Route 108. More was cut from plans to renovate Bollman Bridge Elementary School, though money for an addition at the 25-year-old school remains, Giles said.

She was heartened that several projects are costing less than anticipated because of the recession. Another $9.5 million in the budget would pay for technology improvements.

Howard Community College would get $14.2 million for more campus parking and another $14 million to begin work on a $44.8 million Allied Health Instruction building.

One of the largest single items in the budget is $29 million for a long-planned transit bus repair facility in North Laurel that will allow the county to attract more bidders for county transit services. All but $4 million comes from a federal grant, Wacks said.

A new 33,000-square-foot replacement fire station in Savage would get $8.5 million, and $2 million is included to plan a new fire station at U.S. 1 and Route 175. The budget also includes $2 million to plan and begin work on street scape, bicycle and pedestrian improvements along U.S. 1.

Another $1 million would add to funding for another new fire station in Glenwood, in the western county.

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