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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball unveils $1.78 billion operating budget, including $620.3 million for schools

In a time of economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, the budget season remains unchanged in Howard County as County Executive Calvin Ball presented a nearly $1.8 billion operating budget Monday night.

Ball presented the $1.78 billion operating budget for fiscal 2021, a 2% increase from last fiscal year, during a virtual presentation to the County Council.

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The budget includes a proposed $620.3 million for the Howard County Public School System, $4.9 million for road resurfacing across the county and $1.5 million to support Howard County General Hospital’s capital priorities.

Ball’s proposal also includes $500,000 for disaster relief surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and $500,000 to support downtown Columbia arts.

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“We are still in this pandemic, and we are still serving our residents. We don’t know when this will end or what the final picture will be,” Ball said in an interview Monday.

The general fund, which supports the most government services, increased by 2.6% this year for a total of $1.19 billion.

Ball said to avoid cuts he’s recommending an increase this year to the recordation tax.

With County Council approval, the recordation tax — a one-time fee paid when real estate is sold to a new owner — will bring in $21 million in revenue by increasing the tax rate which currently stands at a flat rate of $2.50 per $500 transaction. Council members Opel Jones and Christiana Mercer Rigby said Monday they would introduce legislation to restructure the recordation tax at the County Council’s May 4 legislative session.

Rigby and Jones are proposing a restructuring that would incrementally increase based on the transaction price: $2 on each $500 of the transaction price for the first $250,000, $5 on each $500 for the second $250,000, $8 on each $500 for the next $500,000, and $11 on each $500 above $1 million.

Ball’s proposal for the school system’s operating budget is nearly $40 million less than the school board’s request of $657.1 million in county funding. However, it represents an increase of $13.1 million — or a 2.2.% increase — over last year’s school system budget proposal. In February, the county Board of Education advanced a $947.8 million spending plan that included a class-size increase and a phase-in approach to bolster special education funding.

A $36.6 million operating budget is recommended for Howard Community College, representing less than a $1 million increase from last year. For the Howard County Library System, Ball is recommending the county provide $21.9 million, an $429,000 increase from last year.

For HoCo S.T.R.I.V.E.S., or Strategies To Reach an Inclusive Vision and Equitable Solutions, Ball is proposing level funding of $400,000 to support children’s mental and behavioral health programs, academic, social and emotional learning supports, and community capacity building.

Ball said the county has sustained nearly $4 million in coronavirus response costs in the last few weeks, estimating that revenue losses will total more than $35 million from the pandemic in fiscal 2020.

“The proposed budget manages to avoid more severe measures for now, but additional adjustments could be needed in the future months and may include tougher actions given the uncertainties of our economy,” Ball said during his presentation.

Along with the recordation tax, Ball recommended putting $7.5 million from a policy reserve for unforeseen natural and financial shocks toward the fiscal 2021 budget. This will also require County Council approval.

The County Council will host its first of eight operating budget hearings on May 1 to discuss the proposal. The council concluded its first capital budget hearing Monday just minutes before Ball’s remarks on the operating budget began.

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On April 1, Ball 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, as well as $68 million for school construction projects.

The operating budget focuses on day-to-day running of the county and usually covers a one-year period, while the capital budget focuses on more long-term investments and infrastructure updates.

The County Council will vote on the fiscal 2021 budgets on May 27.

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