Harried Howard County Council approves budget, with humor

Gag props from two members

May 27, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

The gag props were new, but the result was the same for the fifth straight year, as a harried Howard County Council approved a budget for fiscal 2012 last week after delaying final votes for a frantic three hours of last-minute negotiations.

County Executive Ken Ulman's $1.56 billion operating budget and $179.3 million capital plan were approved without any cuts on a 4-1 vote, with a frustrated Greg Fox, the council's only Republican, on the losing end. Ulman was pleased with the result.

"It doesn't raise taxes, and makes major steps forward on the environment. I feel great," the executive said after the voting session ended. He plans to hire a new storm-water chief to help the county meet federal and state rules designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay, and put $10 million in the capital budget to help achieve those goals. The budget contained no cost-of-living raises for county workers, but eliminated unpaid furlough days, which will give employees 1.5 percent more than they received in each of the past two years.

Budget director Raymond S. Wacks said the council's decision not to make cuts showed one thing: "It reflected it was a tight budget."

The votes on 28 separate bills and resolutions that cover all aspects of the spending plans were delayed for over three hours Wednesday, as several council members tried to reach a last-minute deal that would bring Fox on board, but that didn't happen. Even he said he was less interested in cutting the tax rate than in shifting money to reduce looming county debts, such as for future retiree health benefits. But the council can't do that without agreement from the executive, and in the end, all six elected officials could not agree on any compromise package.

To express his frustration, the Fulton Republican leaned over to pick up a box full of rubber stamps, which he said symbolized the council's predicament in making budget cuts. He urged a change in the county charter to give the council more power to shift money.

Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson presented Wacks with the blue-painted cardboard core of a roll of paper towels with a tiny blue light inside pasted to some camouflage material She said it symbolized "the light at the end of the tunnel," evident in higher income tax revenues the county is projected to collect next fiscal year.

She tried hard, she said, with council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, to find a compromise all the members and Ulman could accept, but said the gap between "far left and far right" was too great.

"I think the citizens want us to be working together to find solutions," she said. "When you oppose the budget you oppose paying police and teachers," which disturbs her, she added.

Despite the drama, the discussions involved relatively small amounts of money. In the end, the council shifted $400,000 to the Police Department to pay for four new officers to do community policing, gave $125,000 to Recreation and Parks for youth programs, and moved another $125,000 to the executive's office for a new point person on the downtown Columbia development.

The council also unanimously agreed to restore $63,000 cut from two nonprofits: the National Family Resiliency Center and the Autism Society. "This is something we all recognized is important to the county," Fox said.

An unexpected $1 million in state aid to the county libraries will go toward renovating the current Miller library in Ellicott City into offices once the new larger branch opens this year, and for preparing office space to be vacated in the east Columbia and central libraries for public use. The schools got an extra $2.6 million in state funds, too, which will pay for higher school bus fuel costs and new state administrative charges for handling teacher pensions.

Fox's suggested cuts totaled about $2 million in salaries, including $1.5 million removed from vacant but funded county jobs. Fox contended that an administration chart given to the council showed that the jobs he wanted to cut would not be filled next fiscal year. Ulman administration officials denied this. Wacks said the intention is to fill all the vacant funded jobs, and added that Fox's proposed cuts included a number of jobs that are in the process of being filled.

Fox also proposed reducing pay raises for several appointees and eliminating several new jobs, including one in the public information office for a person to manage the burgeoning government use of social media. He later said he would have voted for the budget if he had gotten even half the money in the cuts he sought, but in the end, he got nothing.

Ulman defended his plan and said he tried to work with council members to reach consensus. Watson concurred with him.

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