As the incoming president of the Maryland Association of Counties, Howard County's newly re-elected executive, Ken Ulman, is girding for battle in Annapolis to fend off new attempts to shift the cost of teacher pensions to local governments.
It will be a daunting task, especially as new information reveals the state's revenue shortfall has grown to $1.6 billion for fiscal 2012, amid pledges by Gov. Martin O'Malley not to propose tax increases. Howard's employees are due an unpaid four-day furlough between Christmas and New Year's again this year, and Ulman faces perhaps his toughest budget process next spring since the recession began.
Still, Ulman said he doesn't view the shift of pension costs to locals as inevitable.
"I don't think any MACo president would really wish this year as the best one to become president," he said, recalling past attempts by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to ease the state's burden by moving a portion of pensions to the counties. Ulman will assume the office just after the new year at the organization's winter conference in Cambridge.
"We're going to be down there working hard to make the case that there should not be a pension shift. We already pick up Social Security," Ulman said. State officials argue that counties set teacher salaries that determine their pensions, so it's not fair for the state to foot the whole bill. Ulman tried to deflect that by pointing out that the elected school board sets the salaries, not the county executive. In any case, "I don't think that [the shift] is a foregone conclusion," he said.
Ulman sees O'Malley, a close political ally and the former mayor of Baltimore, as a key official sympathetic to his own point of view. O'Malley has not backed the pension cost shift so far. State Sen. James N. Robey, a former county executive who serves on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said he's waiting for a state commission report on what to do about pensions, but he feels torn. "I know from being in local government you don't want it dumped on the counties," he said, but the state can't afford the full $900 million annual burden, either.
Foreseeing 'a mess'
Republican Del. Gail H. Bates, a House Appropriations Committee member, summed up the budget outlook succinctly: "It's going to be a mess." Given the size of the pension cost to the state, "the opportunity to fend that [shift] off is slim to none," she said.
Closer to home, Ulman said he's also facing the challenge of finding money to sock away to pay for the looming costs of retiree health benefits, something Republicans stressed as a major problem during the election campaign. The county stopped making even small payments during the recession, pushing the liability far above the $477 million estimated when a change in federal accounting rules forced governments nationally to face the problem. During the campaign, Republicans criticized Ulman for not putting more of the fiscal 2007 surplus into the fund when he first took office.
The two issues are related, because if counties have to pay millions of dollars a year more for teachers' pensions, it will be that much harder to come up with cash for retiree health benefits, much less continue initiatives like the $500,000-a-year Healthy Howard program for uninsured county residents.
Ulman isn't discussing details, or proposals for new programs or projects. There is plenty already in the works. The county is working on completing the new Ellicott City library, the Robinson Nature Center, the North Laurel park and community center, and plans to begin work on regional parks at Troy Hill in Elkridge and Blandair in Columbia.
"There may not be as many new projects," Ulman said.
During the campaign, Ulman said he had no intention of raising taxes, but he left that door ajar in case things changed. Howard's income tax rate is already at the state's upper limit, leaving the property tax rate as the only general revenue source Ulman controls.
"We're going to make progress wherever we can. It's a balancing act," he said about the retiree health debt.
"These are not easy decisions," Ulman said.
Democrats look west
Howard's Democrats did very well in this year's elections, even capturing the office of Register of Wills from 24-year veteran Kay Hartleb, a Republican, but they didn't gain ground against the four elected Republicans who represent the more rural western county and parts of Ellicott City and Fulton.
Thus, at an election postmortem conducted Nov. 10 by the Columbia Democratic Club, the question of how Democrats like Jon Weinstein and Maryann Maher could unseat incumbents like Republican Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller came to former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis, who was the group's speaker. Willis is director of government and public policy at the University of Baltimore and has studied Maryland electoral trends for years. He had a simple answer to this question.