Howard's financial forecast [Editorial]

Howard County Times

Coming days before Howard's county executive releases his budget plan for the year ahead, a report from an economic advisory committee has warned looks can be deceiving.

"While the county appears to be fiscally healthy, there are storm clouds on the horizon," reads the opening line from the Spending Affordability Advisory Committee's annual report.

The report tempers enthusiasm over the county's solid financial footing with concerns about modest or slower growth in revenues from taxes, the impact of a graying population, the amount of debt the county carries and a tilt in the housing market that could moderate tax collections.

The advisers emphasize that the county's key priorities – quality schools, robust public safety and services and solid infrastructure – should remain intact. The county again received good marks for efforts to expand and strengthen the business base but there was a cautionary note that becoming too comfortable with the federal contracting sector could pose a risk.

Once again, the committee suggested the county consider charging a fee for ambulance service and look into a quarter of a percentage point increase in the real estate transfer fee. Elected leaders should avoid the temptation to impose either one.

The county has never been known for freewheeling spending and the county executive's budget stewardship has been responsible, balancing demands for new and better services with the reality that too may taxes or fees can be detrimental to growth. One recent example: The county executive wants to consider a public-private plan for building a new courthouse in Ellicott City rather than paying for the entire multimillion-dollar project by borrowing the full amount.

Stormy weather is inevitable but with the proper preparation, risks can be managed. In budgeting, that means living within your means, salting away money for emergencies and doing aggressive, realistic planning for future needs. The county last year continued steps in that direction, as acknowledged in the latest committee report. Even if there are sunny breaks in the cloudy forecast, a course of financial prudence must be sustained.

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