Howard County Executive Ken Ulman released on Monday a $1.026 billion operating budget proposal for fiscal year 2015, his last before his second term ends in December of this year.
The proposal focuses on education and public safety, with 74 percent of funds allocated to programs in those two categories.
At a briefing Monday afternoon, Ulman said the budget, his eighth, “really continues the progress we’ve been able to make in key areas.”
The proposal’s most significant investment is in education, with $530.4 million designated to the public school system, a $33 million increase over fiscal year 2014, and a full funding of the request submitted by the Board of Education.
The sum is the highest amount ever budgeted for the school system, according to the county, and will help to launch its Elementary School Model Initiative, a program that plans to bring full-day pre-kindergarten, daily foreign language instruction and other services to five public elementary schools.
Forty new educator positions will be funded for the Model Schools initiative and for Thomas Viaduct Middle School, which is slated to open in Hanover later this year.
Ulman’s budget also includes $31 million for Howard Community College, a 6.4 percent increase over fiscal year 2014.
After a double murder-suicide at The Mall in Columbia in January by a shooter who police have said exhibited signs of mental illness, the budget includes funding for several new mental health initiatives.
Ulman called a focus on mental health “integral to our efforts in public safety.”
New allocations proposed in the budget include a second full-time Mobile Crisis Team, which is trained to respond to mental health-related emergency calls; county-sponsored mental health first aid training; a new police department position to focus exclusively on mental health cases; and a task force to develop a Comprehensive Behavioral Health Action plan for the county with the goal of identifying and bridging gaps in mental health services.
Total funding for public safety in the budget amounts to $102.5 million, and creates 14 new officer positions and four civilian positions.
The proposal also includes funds to create a seven-person Pathway Patrol Unit of officers dedicated to patrolling communities on bike. And after the County Council’s establishment of a human trafficking task force in February, the budget would create a three-person unit in the police force to focus on human trafficking, especially along the Route 1 corridor.
Other budget initiatives include $2 million for the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission’s arts district project and $1.5 million to the Inner Arbor Trust for Symphony Woods.
After years of furloughs and pay freezes, most general county employees would receive a 3 percent cost-of-living increase beginning in January 2015.
According to Budget Director Ray Wacks, the operating budget proposal does not increase income and property tax rates.
Ulman said his proposals reflect “a thriving economy tied to quality of life.
“While some would say to lessen your investments, I would say this formula is working,” he said.
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