Amid uncertainty, county officials attempt to plan budget

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is expected to unveil his budget proposal April 20, despite the uncertainty of state funding.

Ulman and county budget administrator Ray Wacks gave few details this week, saying the uncertainty at the state level has created an added challenge in making the county's annual operating budget.


"We haven't really made up our minds," Wacks said. "The level of uncertainty is pretty high right now."

If the state's "doomsday budget" goes into effect, Howard could stand to lose about 1 percent of its budget, or as much as $9.6 million in state aid for schools, community colleges and the library system, Wacks said.


But many expect the cuts won't be adopted and that the legislature will hold a special session to renegotiate the state budget, as well as a bill that died in the final minutes of the session that would shift teacher pension costs from the state to the counties.

More than 60 percent of the county's operating budget is nondiscretionary, including schools funding and debt repayment. A 1 percent reduction would have a greater effect over government services for which the county does control spending, such as public safety, Wacks said.

"It's a 1 percent reduction on top of years of reduced state aid," Ulman said. Four years ago, he said, Howard saw about $30 million in aid. Last year, it was down to $4 million.

The county could also be forced to pay an additional $17 million in teacher pension costs.

"Either way, counties are taking it on the chin," Ulman said.

He would not provide any details on the budget Thursday, including potential tax increases or the return of county employee furlough days.

"We're still going through budget deliberations," he said, adding that details would not be announced until April 20.

Adding to the concern are time constraints. Prolonged indecision over the state budget pushes county officials closer to deadlines outlined by the county charter. The council is scheduled to adopt a budget by May 23, but under the charter, it has until June 1.

Though Ulman would not say where potential cuts are being considered, he said that "public safety and education are always our priority. If people aren't safe, then nothing else matters."

He added, "I'm very confident we will be able to continue our quality of life in Howard County."

Several members of the council said they were anxious about the coming budget deliberations, saying the uncertainty in Annapolis has added a burden.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said that without knowing what the cuts will be at the state level, county officials won't know what areas they will want to protect.


She said, however, that public safety and education will remain priorities.

Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, agreed. "We certainly are going to see cuts in what we expect from the state," she said.

She said education is a top priority, as well as services for those in danger of losing their homes or jobs.

"For me, the priority I've always had is how do we support those in true need," which has increased during the recession, she said.

Although job growth is starting to improve, Sigaty said, "We know there are folks in our community that have lost jobs and are having trouble staying in their homes."

In addition to education and public safety, Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel Democrat, said she hoped to see continued spending in youth programs, after additional funding for activities was added last-minute to this year's budget.

As county officials cope with a potential loss of state funds, the county's spending affordability committee recommended in a report last month that spending increases should be limited, and cautioned that "county leaders will have to make some difficult decisions to keep spending within realistic and reasonable levels."

The report did highlight some signs of positive economic growth, including expected growth in income taxes, the second-largest source of tax revenue.

The county has the lowest unemployment rate in the state, about 4.7 percent, thanks in part to a highly educated workforce that includes defense and cyber-technology workers from the National Security Agency, Fort Meade and other organizations.

County officials argue that while any federal spending cuts would be a heavy blow to other D.C. suburbs, where many federal employees live, many in Howard work for parts of the federal government that are less susceptible to spending cuts.

Property taxes, however, will likely remain stagnant, the report said.

"We're doing the best planning we can," Ulman said of the budget. However, the "added level of uncertainty is unfortunate."

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