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Howard County Council approves fiscal 2022 budgets, voting to allocate additional millions to school system

The Howard County Council approved its $2.18 billion operating and capital budgets for fiscal 2022 Wednesday evening, giving an additional $13.345 million to the school system than initially proposed and making no cuts.

During the all-day vote, which was delayed more than two hours, the County Council discussed alternative ways, besides cuts, to give additional money to the Howard County Public School System.

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Ultimately the council approved an additional $9.345 million be taken from other county allocations and be given to the school system. Of that, $2.5 million will go toward paying down the system’s health and dental fund deficit, $1.5 million will go to the schools’ portion of the operating budget and $5.345 million will go to systemic school renovation within the capital budget.

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.

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Those additions are on top of Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s proposal to add an additional $4 million in funding to schools by instituting a roughly yearlong delay in the implementation of the police department’s body-worn camera program, defunding staffing vacancies in the county and restructuring costs associated with the opening of the new courthouse.

“As we turn the corner on this pandemic, on the road to recovery together, this budget is vital to move Howard County into the future,” Ball said in a statement. “I remain committed to working with the members of our council, residents, stakeholders and all members of our community to ensure that our government provides the best services possible and a high quality of life for all Howard County residents.”

County Council member Christiana Mercer Rigby said she wanted to give more funding to the school system in order to ease the transition into statewide Kirwan Commission requirements that will go into effect in 2026.

“There are long-term changes in terms of funding for the school system. We also have Kirwan coming and part of that is increasing the bottom step [pay] for teachers,” Rigby said after the vote. “It’s coming and we need to begin funding it.”

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Council Vice Chair Opel Jones suggested that the reallocation of funds from county projects to the school system would not have been necessary if the council had voted in favor of his and Rigby’s 2020 legislation to restructure the county’s recordation tax. The recordation tax rate proposal — a one-time fee paid when real estate is sold to a new owner — failed 2-3 during last year’s budget talks.

“I believe it would have been an increase of over $30 million in that revenue. Not all of it would have gone to education, but some of it would, for sure,” Jones said. “We’re looking at nickel-and-diming line items in the budget when we could have had [the recordation tax] revenue this year.”

The council voted to put funding for four projects into contingency, including the North Columbia fire station and the Housing Opportunity Trust Fund. Council members will need to vote to bring the funding for these initiatives out of contingency in future legislative cycles.

After a debate surrounding the number of proposals being put into contingency, County Council member David Yungmann argued that these were issues the council would revisit and that the votes did not eliminate funds from the budget, just put them on hold.

For the past few weeks, council member Deb Jung has been advocating against the proposed location for the North Columbia fire station. Jung introduced an amendment to put the fire station’s funding in contingency in order to allow time for a new location to be approved, and it passed.

This comes after residents from the neighborhoods surrounding Cedar Lane Park East, where the fire station was scheduled to go, organized a response, using budget hearings, an online petition and Jung, their local representative, to stop the fire station from being built in the park.

Last week, Ball sent a letter to the county Board of Education to propose the new North Columbia fire station be relocated to an open portion of land on the school system’s Central Office property. That proposal is currently being reviewed by the Board of Education.

“I am thrilled for the citizens who worked so hard to get their voices heard and for our fire and emergency service who I hope will have a safer location to put this new station,” Jung said.

The council also approved funding for the East Columbia 50+ Center. This comes after Howard County Executive Calvin Ball allocated $5.5 million in county funding toward renovations in his proposed fiscal 2022 capital budget and said the center would receive $1 million in state funding.

At the end of April, more than 250 people rallied in the parking lot of the East Columbia Branch library in support of fully funding the renovation of the East Columbia 50+ Center proposed in the fiscal 2022 capital budget. At that event, Rigby and Jones said they would support funding the renovation.

Last year, Ball had initially included $16.2 million in the fiscal 2021 budget for the design and construction of the expansion of the East Columbia center. At the time it was expected to be complete in fiscal 2021, which ends June 30. But after the majority of the County Council voted to cut $23.4 million from Ball’s total proposed budget, the East Columbia 50+ Center budget was reduced by $4.5 million. Ball said that decision led to delays in scheduled projects including the 50+ center.

Throughout the budget vote, council members signaled a desire to have more in-depth conversations on suggestions to the budget, made through amendments, in the future during the monthly legislative process.

“We spend about 90% of our time reacting to problems and only 10% of our time trying to find solutions as a body,” Rigby said. “We have to get out of this endless cycle where there’s not enough funding to cover the needs of our community.”

The school board is set to vote on its budgets Thursday.

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