Cuts unlikely for Howard budget as council wraps up review

Some funding shifts still on the table; Republican Fox looks to pay retirement costs

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

Howard County Council members wrapped up their review of County Executive Ken Ulman's proposed $1.56 billion operating budget without agreeing to any cuts, though the panel may shift some money before final votes scheduled for May 25.

In a final, two-hour work session late Wednesday, Republican Greg Fox took aim at money Ulman wants to set aside to keep vacant jobs on the county's books. Fox suggested using some of the $5.6 million set aside to fund 138 positions for another purpose — like adding to the county's savings for future retiree health benefits, but budget director Raymond S. Wacks resisted that idea.

Fox said there might also be excess money in the $179.3 million capital budget. He considers that "almost a slush or contingency fund, almost like a hidden contingency," but Wacks disagreed.

"That's not exactly fair," Wacks said, because of the way the budget is structured. "We can't take money from police and spend it in public works," he said, and added that excess capital budget money can't legally be used for continuing operating expenses. It would become surplus at the end of the fiscal year, but can only be used for one-time expenses.

"We have not been spending every dollar," Wacks said about the county's efforts to conserve money during the recession. " We have been working to save those dollars."

He added that although many county jobs have remained vacant as revenues fell, increasing revenues in fiscal 2012 will allow many to be filled once again.

"Many of these are in the hiring process," Wacks said. "We worked with the departments on all of those positions." Just because they remain vacant "doesn't mean they're not needed." The county still has another 39 vacant jobs that weren't funded in the budget, he added.

The council also discussed shifting up to $60,000 in county grants to nonprofits to help several small organizations — like the Autism Society and the National Resiliency Center — that lost funds in Ulman's recommendations.

Council members have until noon Monday to file amendments to the budget.

Members also reviewed the mostly flat budgets of a few small agencies including housing, the Office of Law, and finance, where eight-year director Sharon Greisz, a 28-year county employee, is retiring. But those agencies took just a few minutes each, with council members asking few questions — except when it came to new positions.

West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty had a lot of questions about a new $95,000 job for the administration's point person on the downtown Columbia redevelopment project. Wacks said the new person would likely be hired this summer, if the council approves, and be paid with money left from the county's inactive Revenue Authority. The job is within the Economic Development Authority's budget, but the person hired would answer to the county executive's office, Wacks said.

"What will this person be doing?" Sigaty asked.

"We're trying to figure out how to make downtown work. It's very complex," Wacks replied. The new job is also to help the Revenue Authority, which has never proposed a project, find something worthwhile to do. The authority, which has the legal ability to sell bonds and borrow money, was created under former County Executive James N. Robey to enable construction of a parking garage for Main Street Ellicott City. But a study later found the garage was not needed.

"The concept makes a lot of sense," said Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson. Fox asked for a legal opinion about the unusual structure of the job, funded by one agency but reporting to the executive. "I want to make sure it's all good," he said.

Another new job would be in public information, to monitor and better coordinate the burgeoning use of Facebook and Twitter and other social media by government agencies. The Office of Environmental Sustainability would also hire someone to work on storm water control efforts countywide.

Ulman's operating budget contains $870.8 million in locally raised revenues, but there is little opportunity for council cuts.

County employees are not getting cost-of-living pay raises, though elimination of a four-day unpaid furlough means an extra 1.5 percent in their paychecks for fiscal 2012. The property tax rate won't increase either, and, for the first time, declining home values have left the county with a property tax rate that will produce about $3.9 million less than in fiscal 2011, which ends June 30.

Still, some homeowners who have lived in the same house for over 10 years will see their tax bill go up. They are still benefiting from the discount provided by the Homestead Tax Credit program, which limited to 5 percent a year the increased taxable value of a house. Baltimore City-controlled water and sewer rates are also to increase 9 percent.

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