At the first of his public hearings on Howard County's Fiscal Year 2015 budget, County Executive Ken Ulman sounded a hopeful note.
"Budgetwise, I think we're beginning to emerge out of the depths of the great recession," he told the crowd of more than 50 people who showed up to testify or observe on Wednesday.
Despite prudence from his financial advisers – he jokingly referred to Budget Administrator Ray Wacks as "Dr. Doom" – Ulman was cautiously optimistic.
"We've all tightened our belts, and I do believe that there are brighter times ahead," he said. "Doesn't mean we can open the floodgates on the budget, but we may be able to make some progress."
The 2015 fiscal year runs from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015. Ulman's hearing represents the start of the process, which includes input from the Planning Board and a County Council vote before it is finalized next spring. By charter, Howard County is required to have a balanced budget.
Some 25 people testified Wednesday night to request funding for projects ranging from better biking infrastructure to flood mitigation in Ellicott City's historic district. Representatives from the public school system, Howard Community College and the library system also showed up to preview their budget requests.
School Board member Ellen Flynn Giles and Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Renee Foose asked the executive to maintain strong support of the county's nationally recognized public school system.
"We must continue to protect gains made over the last several years," Flynn Giles said.
In late September, the Board of Education preliminarily approved a $94.6 million capital budget request with combined state and county funding. Flynn Giles said the Board was disappointed with the $11.2 million in funding proposed by the state for capital projects, but said they were confident they would be able to appeal to the state to increase its allocations.
Foose, who said the school system's zero-based budgeting structure made for "one of the leanest operations" in the state, will propose her operating budget in January.
Howard Community College President Kathleen Hetherington said the college has made gains with a new health sciences building and a new science, engineering and technology building in the works, but she stressed that HCC needed to continue to expand in order to accommodate a growing student body.
"The college continues to fall short of the space required to accommodate the surge of students over the last several years," she said. Though enrollment in the short term appears to be leveling off, she added, the college's head count is projected to increase by 26 percent in the next decade.
Hetherington said HCC's budget request would include funding for building and facility renovations as well as a 750-space parking garage expansion.
Howard County Library System CEO Valerie Gross touted the library's educational programs, particularly its STEM initiative, HiTech, which teaches coding to middle and high schoolers.
With 3.2 million student visits in the last year, Gross said investing in the library was "a strong investment in the county's future."
She said the library system's budget, to be proposed in January, would place a high priority on staff and curriculum needs. Library system Board of Trustees chair Anne Markus added that the new budget would include funding for renovations of the Central and East Columbia branches, as well as money to build a new Elkridge branch library.
Ellicott City Historic District Partnership Interim President Andy Hall said the organization, created this summer, would request $75,000 from the county to go towards hiring a new executive director and promoting the historic district. Hall said the partnership was preparing an application for Ellicott City to become the first Howard County main street in the Main Street Maryland program.
Ellicott City residents Michele Bickley and Tom Coale, a state delegate candidate in District 9B, urged Ulman to expand flood mitigation projects to Ellicott City's West End, where property owners experienced some of the worst damage when flooding devastated the area in 2011.
"We are talking about existential problems," Coale said of the need to prevent future catastrophes. He suggested the county create a comprehensive, long-term strategic plan for solving flooding on the West End that the public can look at and follow.
Columbia resident, Horizon Foundation communications director and Howard County Housing commissioner Ian Kennedy pitched a vision for the future of Columbia and Howard County. Pointing to a study that warns of an impending suburban housing market crisis, Kennedy suggested creating a neighborhood investment fund for modernizing housing stock, fostering retail development in village centers and renovating community facilities to keep neighborhoods vibrant as they move into middle age.
One key to keeping Howard County attractive, Kennedy said, is better biking infrastructure.
"This is the future, demographically, of where we need to be," biking advocate Larry Schoen said of funding for bike projects. Schoen said the county should fund a full-time bicycle transportation coordinator because "it's a different view from the saddle of the bicycle."
Bicycle Advocates of Howard County member Bill Kelly said the county should invest at least $250,000 for biking infrastructure funds in 2015. "We need to get serious here," he told Ulman.
Ulman will hold a second public budget hearing in March of next year, before proposing his budget to the County Council in April.