Residents, groups lobby for funding in next Howard County budget

Library, community college among services requesting increases

March 17, 2011|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

When Pat Hatch first started the Howard County nonprofit that assists foreign-born residents in 1981, there were far fewer people in need of help.

But 30 years later, one in six county residents — or 43,000 — was born in another country, Hatch said at the county executive's annual public budget public hearing Wednesday night at the George Howard Building.

"We are struggling to keep up with the growth in the immigrant population" in the county, she said of FIRN, a service that helps immigrants assimilate by providing access to community resources.

Hatch was among several county residents and organizations that commented on the county budget for the next fiscal year. County Executive Ken Ulman is to unveil his budget proposals in April, and the County Council must adopt a new spending plan by June 1.

Howard officials continue to face financial pressures, including nearly flat revenue from the property tax, which accounts for about 53 percent of local revenues, as home values continue to drop.

"We're going to have to make some tough choices," said county budget director Raymond S. Wacks in an interview Thursday. Declining home values are "hurting our ability to fund new programs," he said, adding that dump trucks and fire engines "use a lot of gas" at a time when fuel prices are also on the rise.

But the bright spot for Howard County officials is the income tax, Wacks said. Despite record-setting job losses during the recession, the county remains relatively unscathed, with many residents employed in federal government jobs and coming from the growth at nearby Fort Meade.

The county has also preserved its AAA bond rating for the 14th consecutive year, meaning county bonds carry the lowest risk of default and, therefore, can be sold for the lowest possible interest rates, saving taxpayers money.

While Wacks said no decisions have been made, he said nothing has been ruled out, meaning county workers could see a third year of furloughs, and county programs might not get the increased funding they hope to receive.

In addition to FIRN supporters, other groups including the library and Howard Community College lobbied for more money after several years of flat funding from the county.

"The county has flat-funded us but we didn't get any increase," said Lynn Coleman, vice president of administration and finance for Howard Community College. Yet "our student population has grown dramatically since 2005," she said.

With a growing student population, school officials are asking for a 3 percent increase this year for constructing a new health sciences building, which will largely house the nursing school that has about 1,200 students. The school is also asking for money for the design of a new science, engineering and technology building.

Wacks said that while the college hasn't had funding cuts in the past, the county recognizes enrollment is growing, and the school needs to expand.

Several employees with Howard County libraries also spoke at the hearing, calling the county service not only important but growing with 7.2 million items borrowed last year — a 9 percent increase compared with 2009.

"We need additional positions at the Miller Branch," including instructors and specialists, library President and CEO Valerie J. Gross said in an interview. "We know the county executive has difficult decisions to make, but our job is to convey we are a wise investment," she said.

The library wants to add four positions at the Charles E. Miller Branch, which is being renovated to expand classroom space, including a new "Enchanted Garden" that will serve as an outdoor classroom.

Gross said one of the most popular library programs has been one that helps incoming kindergarteners prepare for the first day of school.

"They board the bus, they get to experience the separation ahead of time," she said. "They get to see what it's like so on the first day of school, there are fewer tears." Another program has been added to help students transition to middle school.

Kathryn Huggins, a mother of four who recently moved to Howard County with her family, said the Savage branch offered summer opportunities for her kids, including the program for new middle schoolers, which helped her daughter make friends before school started.

Huggins, who spoke at the hearing, said the library "has been a springboard for us" to get involved in other activities around the county.

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