Proposed Republican cuts to Howard County budget fail

Ulman's $1.4 billion plan adopted

May 22, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

In what seemed like another year of frustration for Greg Fox, the Howard County Council again rejected all his suggested budget cuts but did slice $48,000 from its own budget to help the local Neighbor-Ride program and boost an emergency fund for people in crisis.

County Executive Ken Ulman's $1.4 billion budget was adopted virtually intact by a 4-1 vote, with the majority rejecting Fox's attempts to cut $300,000 from the Healthy Howard program, $4.5 million worth of courthouse renovations and $150,000 from Ulman's executive budget (as Fox sought to highlight Ulman's use of two police officers as bodyguard/drivers). Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, voted for Fox's Healthy Howard cut and then offered a $252,000 cut of her own, but both moves lost on 3-2 votes.

"I'm just really grateful the majority realized the importance of this," Ulman said after the Healthy Howard votes. He was also "gratified" he said, about the approval of the $824.3 million locally funded portion of the budget he submitted, and said he's "optimistic" that the 2011 fiscal year will be the last that sees employee furloughs. "I would be very disappointed if there were" more furloughs, he said.

Fox, the council's only Republican, voted alone against the main county budget spending bill for the fourth consecutive year, which Watson said she thought set a record in county legislative history. County budget director Raymond S. Wacks, to whom Watson gave a small Chinese-made snow globe labeled "never again" as a gag gift to mark last winter's snowstorms, said he couldn't vouch for her historical accuracy.

"It's not necessarily history I'd be proud of," said West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty after Wednesday's series of annual budget votes at school board headquarters.

Despite the friction, Watson said the council again had worked well together and argued less this year.

"There were fewer issues because there is less money to spend," she said. The council voted unanimously to approve 23 of the 27 separate bills and resolutions needed to set the property tax rate, departmental fees and fines, and adopt all the spending and borrowing items that make up the total budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The other votes were all 4-,1 with Fox in the minority, though the Healthy Howard cuts were 3-2 votes on amendments to the main spending bill.

The budget did not change the property tax rate, though tax bills will increase for most people who have owned their homes for 10 years or longer. That's because of big tax credits they've collected over time from the 5 percent assessment cap as prices rose. Water bills will also rise 9 percent for those with city utilities, which is the result of Baltimore City actions. County workers will receive no cost-of-living increases, though some will get longevity raises, and many will lose four or five days' pay in furloughs.

Fox said Healthy Howard did not need the full $500,000 requested because it has 621 people enrolled instead of the 2,200 predicted at the start in October 2008. But other members said the program has helped about 4,000 people obtain health care or insurance, and noted that program officials said it would be forced out of business with a cut of $250,000 or more.

"I don't believe that," Fox said, while east Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball derided his proposed $300,000 cut as being worth 77 cents per year for $100,000 worth of house on county property tax bills.

"I'm concerned that we would think 77 cents is not worth expanding affordable health care," Ball said. Fox said that he could make another comparison — that the cut is worth one day's furlough by county employees next fiscal year.

"We're furloughing our employees for one day to give 600 people health care coaches," he said.

West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty said the county money makes up less than 25 percent of Healthy Howard's budget, and she called the health coaches "an innovative program to move people to wellness."

After Fox's cut was killed on a 3-2 vote, Watson, who faces a re-election challenge this year from Republican former delegate and state transportation secretary Robert L. Flanagan, offered a $252,000 cut of her own to Healthy Howard, which is due to go out of business in 2014.

"I don't think local government can offer the bells and whistles of health coaching this year or in future years," she said.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a southeastern county Democrat, disagreed, as did Ball and Sigaty.

"I just don't see health coaches as bells and whistles. This is a bridge until we get to 2014," when federal law requires that everyone buy health insurance, said Terrasa.

Fox then tried to cut the $4.5 million for courthouse renovations, deemed vital by Chief Administrative Judge Diane Leasure but opposed by Republican Circuit Court Clerk Margaret Rappaport and Register of Wills Kay Hartleb. Fox argued there would still be $2 million for the courthouse and the cut could be used to help pay for renovations to the George Howard office complex. He lost that on a 4-1 vote, as he did in trying to cut $150,000 from Ulman's executive office budget.

In comments after the votes, Fox read from the message he wrote last spring, updating a few words here and there as he again accused Ulman of not being frugal enough. Terrasa praised the majority for "having the guts to do what's right" and approve funds for Healthy Howard, and Sigaty praised the budget as "fiscally responsible." Watson said the budget "is what our residents want us to do," and Ball said the decisions "reflect what we value."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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