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Howard’s $250 million capital budget proposal includes funding for Ellicott City flood plan, new cultural center

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball has proposed a $250.4 million capital budget for fiscal 2021 that includes funding for the historic Ellicott City flood mitigation plan, a new cultural center in Columbia and an expansion of the East Columbia 50+ Center.

The fiscal 2021 budget plan is $44.1 million more than last fiscal year’s proposed request.

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“Funding constraints will remain a daunting and growing challenge for our capital projects,” Ball said in a letter to County Council Chairwoman Deb Jung. “The COVID-19 epidemic and an economic downturn is anticipated to have a significant impact on operating budget revenues, which funds the annual principal and interest payment for the debt borrowed to finance capital projects as well as various county services including K-12 education.”

Ball said, because of the county’s timeline, they were able to consider implications of the coronavirus pandemic in the fiscal 2021 budget. The first coronavirus case in Howard County was announced March 15; as of Wednesday, there are 142 confirmed cases in the county and 1,985 confirmed cases in Maryland, according to state health officials.

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“We’re still in the process of figuring out how to deal with [coronavirus],” said Holly Sun, county budget administrator and chairwoman of the Spending Affordability Advisory Committee. “Obviously it’s going to have a large impact for fiscal 2021, perhaps longer.”

Ball proposed paying for the increased costs in the capital budget, in part, with a transfer tax that would increase from 1% to 1.5%, paid during a real estate transaction.

The budget proposal comes less than a month after the county’s Spending Affordability Advisory Committee released its fiscal 2021 report, determining that, although Howard County’s revenue is projected to grow 2% to 3% over the next few years, expenditure requests are “considerably” outpacing that growth.

The committee recommended general obligation authorization be limited to $70 million; Ball recommended $94.6 million in his proposed budget.

“Even though the number was higher [than what the committee recommended], the number could have been so much higher given the need in the community,” said Steven Poynot, committee vice chair. "It’s higher than what we were all talking about, but it’s line with the last few years.”

For the upcoming fiscal year, the committee recommended a $38.1 million, or 3.3%, increase from the fiscal 2020 budget. Ball’s plan would fund $6 million more than that.

The proposed budget includes $20.2 million for historic Ellicott City and Valley Mede, an Ellicott City development that was hit hard by the floods. Ball said those funds would include storm drain improvements and construction and design of large flood mitigation facilities identified in the Ellicott City Safe and Sound Plan. Ball did not cite which specific part of the Ellicott City Safe and Sound Plan would go under construction.

Ball also recommended funding for the new cultural center in downtown Columbia. The center would be a new home for Toby’s Dinner Theatre and 180 mixed-income residential units, as well as artist and performing spaces.

The center is set to cost $63 million and, according to Ball, will be primarily supported by issuing bonds that are backed by the incremental tax revenues from the Downtown Columbia TIF District.

The proposed budget includes $16.2 million for design and construction of an expansion of the East Columbia 50+ Center, expected to be complete in fiscal 2021.

“The population of older adult residents continues to grow at a rate four to five times that of our student population,” Ball said in his proposal. “To meet our increasing needs to provide the best services to our aging community, we will strengthen services and facilities that benefit them.”

As part of the capital budget proposal, Ball also recommended $68 million in funding for school construction projects, including keeping two repeatedly delayed projects on schedule: the replacement of Talbott Springs Elementary School and a renovation of Hammond High School.

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The County Council is still discussing how they will hold their hearings to discuss Ball’s proposed budget. Last year some of the budget hearings went for 13 consecutive hours, according to County Council Chairwoman Deb Jung.

“It’s not going to be easy to hold lengthy budget meetings virtually, for days at a time,” Jung said. "But we will get through it.”

The proposed operating budget is expected to be released by April 21.

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