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Fire Department, schools, homeless focus of Howard budget

Howard County residents would see no property tax increase this year, but they could pay a higher fire tax under an $899 million budget proposal unveiled Friday by County Executive Ken Ulman.

General fund spending, which represents money raised through local taxes and fees, would increase less than 3 percent.

"It is really a maintenance budget," Ulman said of the spending plan that, if approved by the County Council, would take effect July 1.

A state budget impasse has left state aid up in the air and the question of who will pay teacher pension costs unresolved, but Ulman said his plan is based on a deal made but not passed before time ran out on this year's General Assembly session.

Ulman says he believes state lawmakers will return to Annapolis in a special session and approve a similar agreement.

"We made a decision based on information we had," he said. "We'll adjust accordingly."

The county executive's budget proposal would increase the fire tax to 17.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value across Howard.

Residents in the eastern portion of the county now pay 13.55 cents per $100 of assessed property value, while residents in the west pay 2 cents less. The County Council approved a bill this year replacing the two-tiered fire tax system with a single countywide rate.

"The rate that we're proposing fully staffs the new Glenwood Station — the first new station since 1994, despite dramatic population increases," Ulman said "We've been handling increased calls with the same resources."

Ulman added that a new medic unit at the fire station will help reduce response times. The budget includes the salaries of 41 new firefighter and paramedic positions.

"These are the most important services we provide. This was the rate that I felt was appropriate," Ulman said.

He said property assessments have fallen for many residents, which means they may pay about the same amount after the increase as they did a few years ago.

County figures show that in fiscal 2010, the county collected $68.9 million from the fire tax, but only about $66.3 million the following year. In the current tax year, the revenue has dwindled to just under $62 million. If Ulman's proposed rate is approved, the county would stand to generate $79 million in fire tax revenue.

County Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, predicted the tax rate would be a major subject of discussion as the council weighs the budget.

"We have a duty to ensure a safe and secure environment for our constituents, and I am open to a discussion," Ball said. But he added, "We definitely need to have a committed conversation on what the rate will be."

Ulman's proposal would also add an additional $365,500 to help reduce homelessness. That funding would provide financial assistance to prevent foreclosures and pay for housing subsidies and addiction treatment.

The plan would also provide an increase of 3.5 percent for the Police Department. Howard County schools would receive $525 million.

That money would pay for an additional 80 school positions as the county continues to adjust to enrollment growth.

"This budget allows us to respond to immediate economic challenges, and to continue to build a world-class education program for this generation of students and those to come," said Howard County School Superintendent Sydney Cousin in a statement.

"I am very glad to see the continued commitment to education," Ball said.

Howard Community College would also benefit from an additional $1.2 million, which would help open the school's Health Sciences Building.

County employees would have another furlough-free year, but raises will not return, and 70 positions would remain vacant.

The County Council has until June 1 to make cuts and adopt an operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Ulman is also asking the County Council to approve his $175 million capital budget, released earlier this month.

Residents can testify on the operating budget at council hearing at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 30, at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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