Howard County's proposed operating budget may total $1.56 billion, but it was the minute details of what local government does that occupied the County Council's initial face-to-face reviews of government agencies Thursday at the George Howard building.
Detention center administrator Jack Kavanagh drew cheers, for instance, when he told the council he's forcing the contractor who sells the jail cleaning solution to use 55-gallon drums instead of one-gallon bottles.
"We're saving $5,000 a year," he said to huzzahs from the members.
A pilot composting program coming to Elkridge that would encourage residents to collect leftover veggies, egg shells, pizza boxes and the like (but no meat, fish or bones) also drew a lot of interest. The program aims to prevent residents from flushing food waste down the garbage disposal and eventually to the county's sewage disposal plant in Savage.
"This is the last frontier of recycling," county public works director James Irvin told the council, and every scrap of food collected will help preserve precious landfill space and limit the looming increase in the cost of trash disposal.
Fire Chief William F. Goddard got a rare compliment from Greg Fox, the council's only Republican, for having saved enough money from the good years of the county's separate fire property tax to take up the slack next fiscal year, when dropping home values are expected to reduce that revenue by 7 percent.
"I just want to commend you guys on how you managed your budget," Fox said. "Just because the money's there doesn't mean it has to be spent."
The council can cut from the entire budget when it takes final votes May 25, but in practical terms, members' attention is focused on the $870.8 million raised and spent through local taxes and fees. After three years of cuts, jobs held vacant and sliding revenues, members aren't seeing big items to eliminate.
The council has no leeway when it comes to the single largest category of spending — county schools. It is unable to add money to schools because County Executive Ken Ulman gave the school system the entire $512 million it asked for. If the council cuts funds, it would risk a massive loss of state aid under a law that requires per-student funding to remain level.
Ulman proposed no general tax increase and eliminated unpaid furlough days for county workers for the first time in three years. Employees this year will get the four days off between Christmas and New Year's with pay instead of without.
"We'll go through the process, but with full funding of the board of education, we have limited opportunities for changes without his [Ulman's] cooperation, " said County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat.
"There's not a whole lot of changes that could or should be made," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, A North Laurel-Savage Democrat. With a large new community center and park due to open in North Laurel in June, Terrasa said she's particularly focused on making sure there are sidewalks and bus stops in place to help bring people to the new places, as well as safety improvements at places like Guilford Road and Winterbrook Lane.
Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson, a former school board member, said she's pleased that Ulman met the schools' full request. But beyond that, possible cuts or changes will depend on the reviews the council started last week, and the results of auditor reports members have requested.
"We need to look at where there are new positions and the justification for that," she said. "I want to look at what's budgeted for traffic calming in neighborhoods, which has been on hold for four years.".
That's a focus for Fox too, and he's again going to be gunning for the $500,000 the county spends on Ulman's Healthy Howard program, though he's unlikely to get the three votes he needs.
"One of my concerns is we're still not addressing OPEB," he said, referring to the acronym for the huge unfunded liability for retiree health care. A change in federal accounting standards is forcing every local and state government to save for those costs ahead of time instead of merely paying them as they occur, and the recession has made that kind of saving very tough. Ulman plans to put $3.5 million aside for that in fiscal 2012, but that's not enough to reduce the total bill of well over $500 million.
Fox too said he's looking at vacant positions and whether they should be dropped permanently, something that county budget director Ray Wacks said could happen for some jobs in the future. Irvin said his department has 18 vacant jobs, which makes the work all the harder.
Planning director Marsha McLaughlin described how three vacant jobs in her agency are going to be shifted to create a county transportation office to address mass-transit problems. She's hoping to hire people to fill three other vacant positions that are needed as the county prepares a new General Plan and gets ready for comprehensive rezoning, she said.
Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, summed things up earlier in the week as she prepared for the first agency-by-agency reviews.
"I think Ken's built a really tight budget," she said, adding that she'll be focused on making sure her own top priorities are addressed. "If we want to do anything — anything — we have to come to him," she added.
The agency reviews will resume Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.