Council studies Ulman's budget

Members look for efficiencies in lean year

May 09, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

The Howard County Council spent more time talking about a possible future high school along U.S. 1 than about the entire $805 million education budget for fiscal 2011 during Thursday's work session, but there's a very good reason for that.

"This is the first year that the County Council can't either cut or add funds to schools," said county budget director Raymond S. Wacks before the session began. The council can't cut funding without breaching the state's maintenance of effort requirement for added state aid, and can't add funds because County Executive Ken Ulman proposed giving the schools all the money they asked for. The council is to vote on the entire budget May 19. Howard's council can legally restore money a county executive cuts from schools, if the members also identify the source for the cash, but they can't add beyond the school board's request.

In this recessionary year, the schools worked with the Ulman administration and returned $3.9 million in cost cuts to enable Ulman to meet the state maintenance of effort mandate. Because of expected enrollment increases, the county had to come up with $7.1 million more for schools to satisfy the state standard.

In the capital budget discussion, council chairwoman Courtney Watson pushed hard on the high school in Elkridge issue, though this year's budget contains no provision for it and school officials said it is not needed now. Watson pointed out that while school officials expect to have a new Northeast Elementary school completed for the August 2013 school year, that project was advanced from a 2017 opening since last spring. Now a middle school is also on the board's agenda for redeveloping U.S. 1 corridor, but not a high school — yet.

"I'm concerned that our growth down there might create a need for another high school," Watson told school officials, because work on a new elementary and middle school will open the area to more development, speeding the increase in students. She urged board members to "take the possible need for a high school a little more seriously. I'm worried that in two years, we're going to need a high school down there." Watson, a Democrat running for re-election, represents Elkridge, and residents have been pushing for their own high school for several years.

School superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said he's eager to find land now for any future school, even though school officials don't now see the need for a high school in Elkridge. Officials said there are 300 to 400 available seats at Marriotts Ridge High in western Ellicott City, and both Long Reach and Oakland Mills High schools in east Columbia, closer to U.S. 1, are under capacity.

"We would try to acquire that [land] now and not wait until the need appears," Cousin said. But the board hasn't secured a site for either the 600-seat elementary or the proposed middle school in the crowded commercial corridor, much less the 35 to 50 acres needed for a high school.

The school budget is by far the largest single chunk of Ulman's $1.44 billion budget proposal, which includes $824.4 million in locally produced revenues. The executive's proposal also calls for a second year of four-day furloughs for general county workers and five days for department heads and elected officials. There are no cost-of-living pay raises, and 200 county jobs will remain vacant. Also, there will be no changes in county tax rates, though most homeowners in their homes more than 10 years will still see their bills increase. Public water charges imposed by Baltimore City are also increasing 9 percent.

Other departments facing the five County Council members all have similar tales to tell of finances even tighter than those of the schools.

Police Chief William McMahon said he's got $1.7 million less to spend in fiscal 2011 than he had this year in Ulman's proposal but hopes to keep his authorized strength of 441 sworn officers. Five of the 183 civilian jobs are being kept vacant, however, he said. Ulman has added 54 sworn police jobs during his term, though he had hoped to add 100, Wacks said.

Greg Fox, the council's lone Republican, couldn't resist a dig at Ulman's police drivers, commenting that the chief could get two more officers on the street by eliminating the security detail for the Democratic executive.

Fire Chief William Goddard had a similar story, though his department is supported by a separate property tax. That tax will produce $55.5 million instead of $57.5 million for fiscal 2011, and things will get worse next year, Wacks explained, because unlike the general property tax, the fire tax is not subject to the 5 percent assessment cap. That means no cushion of slowly rising taxes to soften the recession's blow.

"We are in this period of free-fall for the fire tax," Wacks said.

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