By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
5:46 PM EDT, May 23, 2013
The Howard County Council adopted a $923.5 million general fund spending plan Thursday that increases allocations for schools and police while not raising income or property taxes.
The council voted 4-1 to approve the budget, roughly $2.7 million higher than the proposal made a month ago by County Executive Ken Ulman. The dissenting vote was cast by Councilman Greg Fox, the council's lone Republican, who criticized spending practices several times during the two-hour session.
Fox wrapped up his remarks after the vote with a display of black, pointy wizard hats, each representing a new fund that he said appears suddenly, as if by magic, every year in the budget while some basic needs go unfunded.
"Here's the fire tax fund; here's the highway fund," he said, pulling the hats out one by one and putting them on the desk in front of him.
He said new, one-time and limited-term expenses were included in the county budget while other items, such as employee retirement benefits and road paving, needed more support.
The new programs to which Fox referred include $540,000 for a three-year community health workers project, $245,000 for a three-year school-based health center initiative and $175,000 for a program meant to combat bullying in schools.
"Budgets are an expression of commitment to the important issues," Councilman Calvin Ball said during the session. "It's important we demonstrate dedication to quality of life. ... I think we have done that."
After the meeting, Budget Director Raymond Wacks said the county had surpluses because the economic recovery had been stronger than expected and many property owners had paid taxes early in anticipation of a tax increase. He said some of that money was allocated for new programs that "we think will benefit public health and economic development."
The spending plan totals $1.4 billion when counting all money sources, including fire taxes and water and sewer fees. It is the seventh and next-to-last for Ulman, who is limited by law to two four-year terms. After weeks of public hearings and work sessions, the council passed his original $920.8 million proposal with only minor changes.
"We have a good, collaborative relationship with the County Council," said Ulman, adding that budget discussions begin months before he officially presents his proposal in April.
The budget includes $497.5 million for county public schools, a $17.7 million increase from last year. Among other things, the additional funding will pay for more than 100 instructional positions, including 27 teachers and 12 coaches in math and literacy.
"We were able to fully fund all education requests," said Ulman, a Democrat.
He noted that the $17.7 million increase in school spending is about double the amount needed to satisfy the Maryland law that requires a jurisdiction to keep per-pupil spending constant from one year to the next, even as enrollment rises. He said that's well above the so-called "maintenance of effort" level spent by the six other largest Maryland jurisdictions: Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery, Harford, Prince George's and Carroll counties.
Much of the council's discussion focused on the school system's request above Ulman's proposal for money to close an anticipated $12 million gap in a health insurance reserve account. Without taking money from instructional programs, council members decided to add money to the fund in two annual phases, the first making up about half the amount.
Police Department spending will rise 10 percent. That will cover 12 more officers for specialized units, including repeat-offender enforcement, family crimes, traffic and community services, education and training.
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