Balancing budget priorities [Commentary]

Commentary for the Howard County Times

I visited New York City Wednesday, March 22 with Council Chairman Jon Weinstein and Council member Greg Fox to present Howard County's financial picture to the nation's top bond rating agencies. This annual trip is critical to assure Moody's, Standard & Poors and Fitch Ratings that we are on strong financial footing and should retain our AAA bond rating. This rating is critical to helping us keep capital projects, such as schools and infrastructure, affordable for taxpayers.

For the last two months, we have been reviewing budget requests, revenue forecasts and weighing priorities to develop the capital and operating budgets for the next fiscal year. This is always a tough process. In a perfect world, we would be able to say "yes" to all the requests from residents, nonprofits and county agencies.

But we all know that saying "yes" to everything is no more possible in county government than in our own households. We start with essentials like paying the rent or mortgage. But we cannot buy a new car, remodel the kitchen and take an expensive vacation all in the same year. Instead, we must balance priorities and prepare for unexpected expenses. For county government, the devastating flooding in historic Ellicott City caused considerable damage with a significant fiscal impact. However, because of our strong fiscal management, we were able to handle the significant response, recovery and rebuilding costs without cutting services or using our rainy day fund.

Like the past two years, there are tough choices to be made in how we spend the taxpayers' money efficiently and responsibly, while maintaining our quality of life and making progress on our top priorities.

For fiscal 2018, we expect moderate income growth – about 3.9 percent – or $40.6 million total. This increase must be divided among hundreds of requests, including education, public safety, public infrastructure, community services and many other important areas.

Education will always be a top priority. Our top ranked school system receives nearly 58 percent of the county's entire operating budget each year.

As county executive, I have limited control over the school system's budget beyond the responsibility to appropriate county funding. Last year, I targeted funds to increase the special education budget, add 54 new teaching positions and provide much needed salary increases for our teachers. Like last year, the Board of Education has requested more than the county can afford – requesting a $64 million increase this year – which surpasses our total revenue growth projection and would require a significant increase in property taxes.

For this next fiscal year, an additional $7.7 million from the County's overall $40.6 million of revenue growth is already earmarked for HCPSS's mandated maintenance of effort increase. We will also provide funding to Howard Community College to support the operations of a new building and to the Howard County Library System to support the new, expanded Elkridge Library.

At the same time, we will continue to expand much needed services for seniors, veterans and many others through continued support for human services, including the Non-Profit Center, which will open this spring.

We are working hard to manage expectations for both the capital and operating budgets based on projected revenue growth and the advice of our Spending Affordability Advisory Committee. The committee stressed that fiscal discipline is essential to making sure that county services and capital improvements do not outpace revenue growth.

We will continue the same fiscal discipline that we have used over the last two years to balance our priorities and keep Howard County's AAA rating. As I have said before, I appreciate hearing directly from residents during our public budget hearings and consider your input seriously while making the many decisions required to craft the budget. I will submit my proposed capital budget to the council on April 1 and proposed operating budget on April 20.

Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican, is county executive of Howard County.

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