Political Notebook: Howard escapes major budget harm from state

Ball raises campaign money

  • Belmont Mansion, which dates back to 1736, was in the Dorsey family for generations before being donated to The Smithsonian Institution in the 1960's. It is now part of Howard Community College and is called the Belmont Conference Center. The recent addition of an unsightly silver exhaust fan and ductwork on top of the roofline, at right, has added to the concerns of preservationists and neighbors that the 18th century mansion is not being properly maintained.
Belmont Mansion, which dates back to 1736, was in the Dorsey… (AMY DAVIS, Baltimore Sun )
April 10, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Once again, it appears Howard County has escaped any major loss of state revenue, though state funding is still declining in several areas.

"Overall, it could have been a lot worse," County Executive Ken Ulman said as the General Assembly closed in on a final state budget. It would have been worse, he added, if not for support from Gov. Martin O'Malley, who helped keep the General Assembly from laying a big hit on all local governments by transferring teacher pension costs to them.

Not that Ulman is entirely satisfied.

Instead of restoring highway maintenance funding to former levels, the state put $13 million in the budget to provide some help for neglected, pothole-pocked streets, but Ulman said $8 million of that extra money is going to municipalities, and Howard and Baltimore counties have no incorporated towns. County governments statewide are sharing $5 million.

Also, the county will have to pay around $3.2 million for the state property assessment office in Ellicott City over two years. After that, the annual cost will drop to about $900,000, budget director Raymond S. Wacks said.

Woody Swinson, the county school system's budget director, said the General Assembly added $2.6 million in state funding for Howard schools, but the system must pay an added $1.1 million in administrative costs for teacher pensions, cutting the overall increase to $1.5 million. The increase is tempered, she said, by the fact that county enrollment increased by 311 students this school year, not counting additional pre-kindergarten students from low income families that the state mandates the county teach.

Still, Ulman said "if you were handicapping our chances before the [General Assembly] session started, we'd be very pleased with the outcome." Ulman will propose his own budget for Howard County by April 21.

"You're going to see an operating budget in a few weeks that continues to show we're in challenging times," though there's a "flicker" of improvement, he said.

One decision that could make a monetary difference involves Belmont, the 18th-century estate on 81 acres in Elkridge that Howard Community College had been trying to sell since September 2009.

The down real estate market has not produced any offers near the $4.4 million the college paid for the estate, but if a sale occurred, even at a low price, the county government is due a tempting $2.6 million of the proceeds. Or, instead of letting it languish unused, the county government could forgive the debt and take over Belmont, using it for some other purpose until the market rebounds in a few years. The college closed Belmont in December because it was losing money.

Asked about Belmont at a Howard County Leadership 25th anniversary luncheon at Turf Valley on Tuesday, Ulman said, "It's fair to say we're in conversations about the future of Belmont," though any final decision is perhaps a month off.

One possible scenario would have the county take over the estate and contract with the Howard County Conservancy to run an environmental center there, which would be Elkridge's first. Meg Boyd Schumacher, executive director of the conservancy confirmed the Marriottsville nonprofit "has discussed the possibility of offering programs at the Belmont location."

"The Board believes the Conservancy's mission and programs could be a positive addition in an area of the county that is not currently served by an environmental education facility," she said in a statement.

County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents the area, said she "would entertain a short-term plan to preserve Belmont until the real estate market improves" if it doesn't mean major new expenses.

Hotel tax rising

Visitors to Howard County hotels and motels will have to pay a bit more in local taxes. Both houses of the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the local bill raising the county's room tax from 5 percent to 7 percent. The increase is expected to bring in an extra $1.2 million which will be split among the county tourism bureau, the Economic Development Authority and the general treasury.

Ball's political future

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, is the latest county official to hold a political fundraiser, though Ball, the longest-serving council member, is no more forthcoming about his intentions for 2014 than either County Executive Ken Ulman or fellow council member Courtney Watson were at their recent events.

In fact, he's slightly less revealing.

Both Ulman and Watson said they intend to continue in elective office, though they are not sure what they will run for in 2014. Ball made no ironclad statements.

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