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Howard County Council approves fiscal 2021 budgets, signs off on spending cuts

The Howard County Council discusses the fiscal 2021 budgets.
The Howard County Council discusses the fiscal 2021 budgets. (Baltimore Sun)

The Howard County Council approved a nearly $2 billion operating and capital budget Wednesday evening for the upcoming fiscal year.

Of the combined $1.8 billion, approximately $230 million went to the fiscal 2021 capital budget, less than the $250 million that was originally proposed by County Executive Calvin Ball on April 1. An estimated $1.57 billion went to the operating budget, which funds police, schools and other operations; this was also smaller than Ball’s proposed $1.78 billion.

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Hard lines were drawn in the sand during county budget hearings, creating alliances throughout the process. Council members Christiana Mercer Rigby and Opel Jones, both Democrats, introduced legislation in early May to progressively restructure the recordation tax — one of the three fees paid on real estate transactions. The bill was first proposed by Ball.

“I’m glad to see some last-minute compromises were made,” Rigby said Wednesday during a more than seven-hour budget adoption process. “The impact of these cuts will be felt for more than a year. This has been a very long and trying budget process for all of us.”

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David Yungmann, the sole Republican on the council, Chair Deb Jung and Vice Chair Liz Walsh meanwhile said Ball’s budget proposals were unreasonable in a time of economic uncertainty because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week they introduced amendments to cut the budgets by more than $110 million.

With two vastly different perspectives, the County Council was forced Wednesday to compromise after nearly 70 hours of virtual budget work sessions. The Yungmann/Jung/Walsh proposal, with a clear majority on the five-person council, ended up winning.

“We are cutting back on infrastructure, accessibility, deferred maintenance,” Yungmann said during Wednesday’s budget adoption. “We are debating how we fund this government operationally long term.”

Earlier this year, Ball proposed a $620.3 million operating budget for the school system — $36.8 million less than the Board of Education’s request. However, the school system fiscal 2021 budget represents an increase of $13.1 million, or 2.2%, over last year’s budget. Ball’s proposed amount passed Wednesday.

With proposed increases in both budgets from the previous fiscal year, Ball suggested paying for the additional costs in the capital budget by raising a transfer tax paid during real estate transactions from 1% to 1.5%. For the operating budget, Ball proposed a restructuring of the recordation tax, also paid during real estate transactions.

Walsh said during the final budget work session Friday that she would support the recordation tax restructuring “any other year” but didn’t feel this was the year to increase taxes. The resolution failed 2-3 Wednesday night, with Jung, Walsh and Yungmann voting against.

The transfer tax had better luck Wednesday night. Jung introduced a late amendment to change the increase from 1.5% to 1.25%, still up from the current 1%. The amendment passed 3-2, with Yungmann and Walsh voting against.

“I really want to see whatever money we can get to our schools,” Jung said. “I know this money will be divided among the other amenities as well, but our school construction situation is dire.”

The highly anticipated discussion of the cultural arts center, a new home for Toby’s Dinner Theatre and 450 mixed-income residential units across five buildings, as well as artist and performing spaces, was not cut for fiscal 2021; the council instead voted to put the funding in contingency.

“This really is an indication of our commitment to this project, to wanting it to move forward, to make sure it doesn’t get lost in the budget fray,” Jung said. “Our commitment is to make sure that as we go through this process in a little more detail, that the money is sitting there in an account waiting to be spent when the time is right for this project to actually start construction.”

Jung and Yungmann, who spearheaded Wednesday’s process to keep the cultural center in the fiscal 2021 budget, had originally planned to cut the project’s $63 million in funding. They said they also wanted more time to go through the project, which the county worked on for the last eight to 10 months and had been given to the council six weeks ago for review. The contingency plan pends further council approval.

The budgets will go into effect July 1 pending Ball’s approval.

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Baltimore Sun Media reporter Jacob Calvin Meyer contributed to this article.

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