The Howard County Council, in its sixth straight 4-1 partisan vote on the budget, passed a $899 million spending plan Thursday for fiscal 2013, as well as companion legislation to raise the county fire tax rate to 17.6 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The council also passed a $182 million capital budget, an increase of about $6.8 million from County Executive Ken Ulman's original proposal, as the state recently approved additional school construction funds for Howard.
During the 90-minute session, the council swiftly approved eight minor amendments submitted by the Ulman administration to the main budget bill, only stopping briefly to go into closed session and obtain legal advice on one amendment.
However, when the council reached the ninth and final amendment, tension erupted between lone Republican Fulton Greg Fox, who submitted the amendment, and his Democratic colleagues.
The amendment was to reduce the fire department contingency fund from $15 million to $500,000, a companion to a separate amendment Fox submitted on the resolution to raise the fire tax. Fox proposed an increase of 14.3 cents per $100 of assessed value instead of the 17.6 cents rate Ulman had proposed.
Under the two-tiered system the council, with Fox dissenting, voted to eliminate in March, residents in the rural west have been paying 11.6 cents per $100 of assessed value and residents in the east have been paying 13.6 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Fox's proposal to lower the increase in the fire tax rate sparked a heated discussion between him and his fellow council members.
Early on in the discussion, Fox said he would vote for the budget this year, despite his objections to some of the things in it, if the council voted for his proposal to limit the fire tax increase.
"I would be willing to compromise for the sake of the citizens," he said.
He argued that the county, instead of collecting $15 million it doesn't need to fund the fire department's budget in fiscal 2013, should pass just what is needed and look for efficiencies or other funding sources in the coming year before deciding to raise the tax further.
The other council members did not subscribe to Fox's logic.
Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball said Fox's proposal "is not a compromise," given that the fire chief said he would have preferred a rate around 20 cents to provide for additional services that are not in the budget plans for the next few years under the rate Ulman proposed. Ball said the 17.6 cents rate is a compromise.
Rebuffing Fox's arguments about the county taking money out of the taxpayers' pocketbooks that it doesn't need, Ball noted that the $500,000 that would have been put in contingency under Fox's plan "wouldn't be enough to pay for one engine" should the need for one or other expenses arise.
Jen Terrasa, also a Columbia Democrat, said Fox's proposal "really punts the decision into next year." She said the council shouldn't take a gamble that Fox can come up with a sufficient plan to avoid another tax increase next year, considering he didn't propose any cuts this year.
Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson also supported the 17.6 cents rate, noting it will provide predictability.
"It's what our citizens demand," she said.
Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, also cited the need for stability.
Ultimately, the council voted down Fox's amendment 4-1. Later in the session, the members voted 4-1 to approve the increase to 17.6 cents.
"I do not take my vote lightly on this because I am not only raising your taxes, but I am raising my own taxes," Sigaty said before casting her vote.
The fire tax increase is the only tax increase in the budget.
In an interview a few hours after the vote Thursday, Ulman said he's pleased with the council's approval of the budget, which he believes invests in the county's core priorities of education and public safety.
An important part of public safety, which Ulman called "the most important function of government," he said is ensuring the fire department has enough funds to perform live-saving services.
"I put forward — and I'm pleased that four of the five council members agreed — a responsible longer-term plan to fund this important function," Ulman said in defense of the fire tax rate.
Other than the administration's amendments, the council did not make any changes to the $899 million operating budget Ulman proposed in April.
The county's operating budget is mostly funded through the general fund, which is where tax revenues and other fees go once they are collected. The total operating budget, which also includes funding from the state, grants and other sources, is roughly $1.54 billion.
The budget does not include furlough days for county employees, as it did fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011 to offset loss in revenues from the recession.
However, county employees still will not be getting any cost of living increases and roughly 60 vacant county positions will not be filled.
The budget increases funding for the school system, community college and libraries by nearly 3 percent.
One of the few new initiatives in the budget is the Howard County Plan to End Homelessness, an aspect Ulman is particularly glad to see passed.
"In a county that does have as many blessings that we have, it's important to remember that we have families in Howard County that are struggling to make it through this tough economic downturn as well," he said.
In 2009, the county's Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency formed a committee to study the county's homeless problem and drafted a plan to solve it. The fiscal 2013 budget includes $366,500 to implement the plan, which calls for better coordination of existing services, such as housing subsidies, flexible financial assistance and addiction treatment programs, and better use of technology.
Highlights of the $181 million capital spending plan the council approved include:
• $13.5 million for Howard Community College to finish construction of its new health sciences building and to complete engineering plans for a new science, technology and engineering building
• $9.3 million for renovations of the Savage Branch Library and the old Miller Branch Library, which will be used for library administrative offices and to expand the Ellicott City Senior Center next door
• $11 million for storm water facility upgrades, retrofits and stream and watershed improvements — the most ever allocated for such projects
• $600,000 for a feasibility of the Bridge Columbia idea to replace the existing footbridge connecting downtown Columbia to Oakland Mills with a larger bridge that would accommodate buses, bikers and pedestrians.