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Kittleman's capital budget seeks to rein in county's bond debt

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman on Wednesday released his first capital budget, a $342.9 million proposal for the coming fiscal year that focuses on education and public safety but significantly reduces the county's borrowing.

Kittleman's proposal taps $96 million in general obligation bonds, down from $120 million a year in the two previous budget cycles.

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In March, the county's Spending Affordability Committee warned of rising interest rates and recommended the county reel in its borrowing to $90 million a year.

Kittleman said he decided to propose borrowing slightly more than that to ensure "we meet the priorities of our community — educationally, public safety-wise and everywhere else."

More than 60 percent of the borrowed money — $58.7 million — will go toward education projects.

Howard County Public Schools System will receive $63.7 million total for capital projects, including $41.7 million from the county. That number represents a decrease from last year's record capital spending of $77.3 million, of which $55 million were county funds, although Kittleman noted that the proportion of funding allotted to the school system compared with the total capital budget remains on par with previous years.

"Before, when you had $120 million [in bonds], you could do a little bit more," he said.

A proposed budget submitted by the school board and Superintendent Renee Foose in the fall had hoped for more: $87.8 million. In crafting that request, school officials had noted that the school system is projected to grow by more than 12,000 students over the next decade.

But in a recent budget work session, school board members decided to wait until Kittleman unveiled his capital proposal before making decisions about projects to cut or delay.

Kittleman's budget includes $16 million toward the construction of a science, engineering and technology building for Howard Community College, which broke ground in November. The state is providing matching funds for the project, according to Kittleman.

The budget also includes $913,000 to design renovations for the college's nursing and science technology buildings. Kittleman also worked out a deal to fund a new parking garage for the community college, with the county taking out a loan that will be repaid by the college through student fees.

A long-awaited new library and senior center for Elkridge will receive $6.7 million in funds to remain on track. Funding for the project began last year, with a $22 million allotment. Kittleman said the additional costs were related to inflation.

Elkridge is also scheduled to get a new fire station, with money in the budget for the relocation of Station 1. Columbia's Banneker Fire Station could also get a new building in the future — the budget funds a study to look into constructing a 30,000-square-foot replacement.

Together, the Elkridge and Columbia fire station projects total $2.4 million.

Other projects in Kittleman's budget under the public safety category include $2 million toward a third police station, which Kittleman said would likely be located in the old Cedar Lane School in Harper's Choice, and $8.6 million to renovate the county's detention center.

Kittleman also plans to spend $300,000 on a new feasibility study for a planned expansion of the county's Circuit Courthouse. He said the cost of renovating the existing courthouse was close to the cost to build an entirely new one, and he would like to examine other options, such as a relocation of the court.

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The parks system will receive $5 million to fund artificial turf fields for all county high schools as well as continued improvements at Blandair Regional Park and Troy Park.

Kittleman said he planned to keep the county's stormwater fee in effect this fiscal year. Though he was a vocal opponent of the fee during the county executive campaign, the executive said he would take the spending affordability committee's suggestion to hold off on doing away with it until a new revenue source is identified. Funding for stormwater projects in his proposed capital budget totals $13.4 million.

The county executive also decided to take advice from a recently released transition team report and defer renovations of the former Columbia Flier building, which former County Executive Ken Ulman bought last year as a headquarters for the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship.

The transition team's report noted that the building, which the county bought for $2.8 million, will need another $7.4 million to renovate.

County Councilman Calvin Ball, a Democrat from east Columbia, lauded the budget's funding for Blandair and Troy parks, as well as a new fire station for Elkridge.

But he also said he was disappointed to see that his requests for a new Waterloo fire station had again been overlooked, and he voiced concern about the school system's lower budget.

"I'd like to see increased investment in our existing schools," Ball said. "I think we need to continue moving forward with important renovation and expansion projects to ensure that our current students are in as safe and as comfortable environment as possible."

Council Vice Chair Jon Weinstein, a Democrat whose district includes Ellicott City, Elkridge and Hanover, said he was pleased with funding for the Elkridge library and senior center, but added he hadn't had a chance yet to delve into the budget's specifics.

"I think the short of it is, [the capital budget is] a rather dramatic change from previous budgets where the [bond] obligation was higher," Weinstein said. "I understand we're heading into harder fiscal times, so we'll have to see if the priorities line up with what the constituents want."

Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty and members Jen Terrasa and Greg Fox were not available for comment.

The capital budget next moves to the County Council, which can vote to decrease or accept the budget or change specific funding allotments, but can't increase its total amount.

A proposed operating budget from Kittleman is due April 20; both budgets will come up for a council vote in late May.

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