No tax hike, no furloughs in Ulman's $1.6B Howard budget

Ulman targets small increases to specific purposes

April 20, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County residents would see no property tax rate increase and employees would get no cost-of-living pay raises, but would not suffer a third year of unpaid furloughs, in County Executive Ken Ulman's $1.56 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1.

General fund spending, which represents county government-generated revenue, would increase 5.6 percent, reversing last year's 3.2 percent decline. More than half of the new spending is driven by costs over which the county has little control, such as higher fuel and utility costs, health insurance and debt interest.

The second-term executive fully funded the request from county schools, which made school board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui happy.

"I'm very pleased with the way things are going," she said.

Ulman is also targeting small increases for specific purposes. His spending plan includes $1.1 million to operate a new, larger library scheduled to open in Ellicott City, $755,000 more to help a growing Howard Community College, and $385,000 more for nonprofits that run environmental programs and crisis intervention for people in danger of homelessness or in emotional distress.

Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, said being able to expand mobile crisis team hours to weekends is an important step to help emotionally upset or mentally ill people and the police officers who are called to deal with them.

"We're going to hit 420 calls this year," she said, explaining that when three weekday morning hours were added to the service Aug. 1, "our calls went up 25 percent." The teams bring trained social workers to help police deal with sometimes irrational or highly upset people.

Ulman is also proposing slightly more money for the Economic Development Authority in addition to the roughly $400,000 more the public-private agency will get from an increase in the county's hotel room tax from 5 percent to 7 percent, which was approved this year by the General Assembly.

"It's going to be evident that Howard County is the economic development leader of Maryland," he said.

The executive also wants to hire a "storm-water czar" to boost efforts to keep runoff out of the Chesapeake Bay's tributaries, and is adding once-a-month curbside bulk trash pickups for residents. Howard's unique health care access program for the uninsured will also get $500,000 — the same amount it got this year — if the County Council approves. The budget also includes revenue from speed cameras that the council is to vote on May 2.

"After a couple years of having to constantly make cuts in the budget … now we're beginning to see a flicker of economic recovery," Ulman said. Still, 68 vacant county jobs will remain frozen, and homeowners will pay 9 percent more for Baltimore City-controlled water and sewer services.

Rising income tax revenues, state education aid and a higher surplus will enable the county to spend $49.5 million more in locally raised general fund revenue. That's less than 1 percent more from property taxes compared with average annual increases of 6 percent or more in boom years.

Overall, including Howard's unusual separate property tax levy dedicated to fund fire services, revenues from this largest single source will drop $2 million because of falling home values. That's the first decline ever. The local income tax rate is 3.2 percent, which is the state's upper limit.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said he too was happy to see the school board get all it asked for and said he "is quite pleased we won't be furloughing county employees this year."

The County Council now has until June 1 to make cuts and adopt an operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Ulman is also asking County Council approval for his $179.3 million capital budget, released earlier this month.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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