Howard County Council delays approval of Ulman's budget

The County Council Thursday decided to postpone approval of County Executive Ken Ulman's $899 million budget, as school officials wait to see if they will get more money from the state and try to reduce costs for a new elementary school.

The approval, originally scheduled for May 23, was pushed back to May 31, at 10:30 a.m. The council will still meet in legislative session May 23 at 9:30 a.m., with another budget work session to follow.

That delay has also pushed back the school system's approval of its budget, originally scheduled for May 29; that vote will now either come later in the day May 31, or June 1.

The board had two work sessions Thursday on its $703 million operating budget — more than half of which would come from the county — and the $74 million capital budget, one in the morning with the council, and one in the evening with the full board.

The operating budget was originally $697 million; the higher number reflects the shift in teacher pension costs to the county level, approved earlier this week during the Maryland General Assembly's special session.

But the work sessions revealed funding issues, which prompted the delayed votes. The schools may still receive an additional $2.3 million in capital funding from the state, said the system's chief operating officer Ray Brown, on top of an original $215 million request.

Also, the system must try to keep plans for a new elementary school on Ducketts Lane in Elkridge at budget, said Ken Roey, the schools' director of facilities, planning and management.

Construction costs have soared in recent years, Roey told the council at Thursday's work session. When the system put out bids for the new school, expected to be opened by the 2013-2014 academic year, offers came back $4 million over budget.

"I don't want to pass a budget if there's no money for (the elementary school)," council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said Thursday. "That's the linchpin; we have to figure that out before we do anything."

Originally, the school system asked Ulman for $476.1 million, but the executive declined to fund $3.3 million for technology programs — an amount that was over the system's maintenance-of-effort budget.

But funds left over from last year's budget will keep those initiatives moving forward, Brown said.

Also at issue is the shift of teacher pension funds from the state to county level. Funding teachers' retirements will cost the system $9.8 million in the coming year. That number will grow over the four-year phase-in, to $12 million next year, $15 million the year after that and $18 million in 2016. The county is receiving more money from the state to cover that cost, Brown said

"The state isn't giving up control of the pensions," said board vice-Chairman Frank Aquino. "It's simply the state sending us a bill."

Despite reduced funding from the county and the pension shift, Brown said everything the board requested was still in the operating budget, minus some audio/visual equipment.

The capital budget, however, was cut to $74 million from an original request of $99.7 million, Brown said.

As a result, the system is pushing back renovations at Longfellow Elementary and roof replacements at Harper's Choice Middle School and Howard High School. Those projects will have to wait a year, said board Chairwoman Sandra French, but plans for an additional physical education room at Bollman Bridge Elementary in Jessup may never come to fruition.

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