Howard council approves Ulman's budget with no cuts

Council flirts with unanimous approval, but can't secure GOP vote

May 25, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

The Howard County Council did not cut a cent from County Executive Ken Ulman's budget proposal, although members delayed voting for more than three hours Wednesday in an unsuccessful attempt to secure unanimous approval.

Ulman said in a prepared statement that he kept his request conservative because he is not sure the county's fiscal picture has stabilized. He had asked for $1.56 billion in operating cash and $179.3 million for capital improvements.

"The national economy has yet to provide clear evidence that recovery is under way," he said.

The final vote on the key spending bill was 4-1, as lone Republican Greg Fox voted against the budget for the fifth consecutive year. He could not attract support for several proposed cuts to eliminate funding for some vacant jobs and several new positions.

"I really wanted to vote for the budget this year," Fox said. He voted no after members could not agree on his plan to cut more than $1 million set aside for vacant positions that he believes will not be filled in fiscal 2012. Leaving that money intact, he said, amounts to an unofficial contingency fund.

Later, Jessica Feldmark, Ulman's chief of staff, disputed Fox. "Every position funded in this budget we intend to fill," She said. Ulman said there are still 81 jobs vacant and not funded.

West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty defended keeping the money intact so the jobs can be filled. "We put these in our budget in tough times because they are important to all our constituents," she said. Democrat Jennifer Terrasa said, "We are here as a government to serve the people. You need staff to do that."

Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who worked to help broker a deal for a unanimous vote, said Ulman worked with council members to get a consensus but that it just didn't work out.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball said, after nearly two hours of voting and discussion, that "this is a budget that reflects our priorities in education, public safety and quality of life."

The overall operating budget will increase 8.8 percent, but the locally funded portion of the budget is rising 5.6 percent. County officials said that increase primarily reflects built-in cost increases for things like fuel, health insurance and interest on debt.

Ulman used small amounts of new funding to pay for a new stormwater czar to help Howard comply with strict new federal and state standards on runoff. He also fully funded a request for $6.3 million more for county schools and gave Howard Community College a 3 percent boost in local funding to hire more full-time instructors and limit a tuition increase to $3 per credit instead of $4.

In a series of last-minute fund shifts, county police got $400,000 more to hire four new officers for community policing programs, and Recreation and Parks got $125,000 to use in gang-prevention programs for young people.

Unlike some counties, Howard faced no budget shortfall this fiscal year, although total property tax revenues declined slightly. County employees will get no cost of living pay raises, but they won't face a third straight year with four unpaid furlough days between Christmas and New Year's either. In fact, they will still get those days off, but this year will be paid for them, which represents 1.5 percent more money that they received this year.

County tax rates are not rising, though Baltimore City is passing a 9 percent water and sewer tax increase along to residents who use public water. In addition, Ulman won General Assembly approval for an increase in the local hotel room tax from 5 percent to 7 percent, with the proceeds going to expand tourism and economic development sales efforts.

The Healthy Howard health access program for uninsured county residents got another $500,000 in county funds for fiscal 2012, but this time without a fight from Fox, who had tried to cut funding for the program in past years.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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