Turnout was lighter than in past years as County Executive Ken Ulman kicked off a budget-making process for next year that has officials cautiously optimistic that they can avoid painful cuts.
Several people spoke before Ulman — who was flanked by budget director Raymond S. Wacks and chief administrative officer Lonnie Robbins — airing requests Wednesday for the next fiscal year at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
County residents and officials spoke on behalf of groups that included the libraries and Howard Community College.
Janet Siddiqui, chairwoman of the Board of Education, said county schools will need help dealing with an increase of 800 students next year. The school board is asking for $98.7 million for capital projects, including renovations to Atholton High and several other schools, as well as a new elementary and middle school.
Before the public testimony, Ulman spoke of "a long slog when it comes to property tax revenue," which accounts for about half of the county's revenue, as home values continue to dwindle. But he added that income tax collections — the second-largest source of county revenue — continue to rise.
And he mentioned the Moody's rating agency's negative outlook for the county, which could affect the county's AAA bond rating. That top rating allows the county to demonstrate a small risk of default and sell its debt at relatively low interest rates — saving taxpayers money.
But in response to Moody's, county officials have said they do not expect that the federal government will want to reduce cybersecurity protection, which makes up many of the jobs at Fort Meade.
County officials met with Moody's representatives in October and argued that Howard's finances are secure because the county will likely be shielded from cuts.
Ulman is to unveil his budget proposals in the spring, and the County Council must adopt a new spending plan by June 1.