Howard executive's budget plan holds tax rate, meets a school budget request

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Howard County school system’s record request for county funding has been trimmed by $51 million in a budget proposed Friday by the county executive.

County Executive Allan Kittleman unveiled a $1.6 billion fiscal 2019 operating budget that is 1.9 percent larger than this year’s and the biggest ever for one of Maryland’s richest counties.

The budget holds the county’s property tax rate at $1.014, although some homeowners could receive larger bills as the result of rising home values.

In a move likely to upset educators who have been calling for increased funding, Kittleman is recommending $594.5 million for the school system, $51 million short of the $645.1 million the Board of Education requested. The additional $51 million would have paid off the school system’s deficit in its health and dental fund, expected to balloon to $50 million by summer. The fund covers employees’ health benefits.

Kittleman is recommending an $11 million, one-time payment to help “plug the hole” in the deficit and stop the school system’s debt from accumulating even more. He noted that the request to pay off the school system’s budget in one year was outside “fiscal realities,” but that he was pleased to see the school system to begin to acknowledge its financial problems and work towards a multi-year solution.

“I’m really pleased we’ve had this great working relationship with [Superintendent] Dr. [Michael] Martirano,” Kittleman said. “He’s providing a request that is fiscally reasonable.”

The school system’s budget, not including its debt service or employee benefits, makes up 52 percent of the county’s total budget, holding steady from last year.

Colleen Morris, president of the county’s teachers’ union, had wanted to see that level increased to at least 57 percent, which would have brought the funding back up past its 2011 level, when the school system made up 56.4 percent of the total budget.

Kittleman said bringing funding levels back up is “something we should certainly strive to do. That would be a goal for us to do over the next four years, but it all depends on what the county’s finances are. This year the finances were difficult.”

Democratic County Councilman Calvin Ball, who is the presumptive front runner to run against Kittleman in the November county executive race, said he “remains concerned” about the unfunded budget deficit the school system still faces.

The county executive’s plan fully funds Martirano’s proposed budget. Kittleman’s proposal is a 3.8 percent increase over last year’s $572.8 million school budget and is $11.4 million over the state’s required “maintenance of effort,” a formula to keep education spending at a set level to meet basic needs.

The Board of Education’s request, its largest ever, had already resulted in planned cuts to the school system, including increased class sizes and the loss of an elementary school world language program. Kittleman’s proposed budget, he said, would keep the school system from making any further cuts beyond its proposed changes.

The budget includes money to double the number of police resource officers at middle schools in the county; currently three officers service six middle schools and each high school has an officer. Mayfield Woods, Patuxent Valley, Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice, Lake Elkhorn and Oakland Mills have officers; it has not been announced where the new officers will be placed.

“This budget demonstrates a commitment to our priorities, particularly to education and the needs of the most vulnerable in our community,” Kittleman said in a statement. “Despite a year of financial uncertainty brought about by changes to the federal tax plan, we have continued to fund our priorities and maintain the level of services that our residents rely on, without an increase in tax rates.”

For the first time, the budget includes operating funds for Howard County General Hospital, though the $389,000 in funding is short of the hospital’s $3 million request. The budget also includes $500,000 for the hospital’s capital campaign, the first installment of a five year plan from the county to contribute $5 million towards the campaign. The money will be put toward a $45 million, two-story expansion that will include space for psychiatric care.

Howard County Community College received a 3 percent budget increase for a total of $35 million. The Howard County Library System received $20.9 million, a 3.1 percent increase over last year.

Kittleman will formally present his budget plan to the County Council at 4:30 p.m. Monday. The council will hold its first public hearing on the budget at 7 p.m. April 25.

The county’s budget year begins July 1.

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