A record-setting $1.6 billion operating budget that shifts more money to public schools to avoid an increase in class sizes next year received approval Thursday morning from the Howard County Council.
The budget holds the county’s property tax rate at $1.014. The council also approved a $164.7 million capital budget for construction and renovation projects.
The budget, which is 1.9 percent larger than this year’s, did not include any new funds for flood recovery efforts following Sunday’s major flood in historic Ellicott City.
In a 4-1 vote, the council shifted $5.1 million to keep Howard County school class sizes from increasing.
Republican Greg Fox, the only council member not running for political office in November, called the decision a “dangerous” political move by his fellow council members to use county money to appease voters.
Democrat Jen Terrasa, who is running for a state delegate seat in District 13, retorted that the decision “isn’t about politics, it’s about priorities.”
The amendment to shift funds puts even more money into an already record school budget request of $594.5 million, on par with Superintendent Michael Martirano’s proposal for county funding, but falls $51 million short of the school board’s request.
Despite the additional school funding, Councilman Calvin Ball, who is the presumptive Democratic frontrunner to face Republican County Executive Allan Kittleman in the November executive’s election, said the county “could have done a better job” on this year’s budget.
Ball highlighted his desire to see more funding for improvements in the Route 1 corridor and his concern about the existing school health-fund deficit and deferred maintenance funding for schools.
The budget also includes, for the first time, $389,000 for Howard County General Hospital, funds to hire 37 firefighters and boosts grants by 8 percent to nonprofit organizations.
County employees, on average, will get a 2 percent cost-of-living pay increase.
The capital and operating budgets include money that had already been planned to continue recovery and mitigation efforts from the 2016 flood in the Tiber-Hudson watershed, including $150,000 for property owners in Valley Meade and Ellicott City for floodproofing on their buildings and $17.1 million for storm drain improvements, and the continued design of stormwater retention facilities.
In her closing statement, chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said the council would continue to work with the county executive’s office through the end of the council’s term to provide additional funding for Ellicott City.
In his closing comments, Jon Weinstein, the Democratic councilman who represents historic Ellicott City, fought back tears in urging additional financing for store owners and residents affected by the flood.
“Once again we find that Ellicott City needs your help,” Weinstein said. “My neighbors, my friends have once again suffered a traumatic blow. We need money.”