Residents showed up wearing T-shirts and buttons bearing the letters of institutions, such as Howard County Public School System and Howard Community College, to give their support to a myriad of county programs — including early kindergarten and language programs in schools and a bike network — at County Executive Allan Kittleman’s second budget public hearing Thursday night.
More than 300 people packed the Banneker Room at the county offices in Ellicott City to show support for county-funded programs and services for a budget that Kittleman said would be “more challenging” than usual this year.
Educators and parents came out in “red for ed.,” to persuade Kittleman to fully fund the public school system’s $645.1 million request from the county, its largest ever.
The school board approved a $906 million budget earlier this week, which also includes state and federal funding. Despite the record amount, the board made program cuts and increased class sizes in order to allocate more funds to pay down its deficit, projected to reach $50 million by summer.
“People can point fingers in all directions for this debacle, but what is not debatable is that it is not the fault of the employees or the students,” said educators’ union president Colleen Morris, who testified to urge Kittleman to fully grant the school system’s request.
Teachers and education advocates asked the county not to cut full-day pre-kindergarten programs and to save the county’s elementary school world language program; both were cut by the school board this week in its approved budget.
“[The world language program] has become a powerful tool that not only equalizes achievement, but helps bridge the culture gap [for foreign born students],” said Stevens Forest Elementary School parent Krista Threefoot.
Kittleman opened the meeting restating that this would be a tough budget year for the county, which is projecting a revenue growth of 2.2 percent.
Continuing its conservative fiscal tone from last year, Howard County’s financial advisory committee urged the county in its annual report released this week to tighten its belt in spending for next year.
The county executive mentioned the challenges in funding the school system, saying the public that if the county were to fully fund the school system’s request, including $50.5 million to pay off its deficit, the county would need to raise property taxes by 10 percent. This year’s property tax is $1.014 for every $100 of assessed value.
Kittleman told residents that while he agrees with the idea to fully fund the school system “in spirit,” the county must “balance the needs of everybody in Howard County. It’s a tough job but that’s what we have to do.”
Bike advocates came out to urge Kittleman to increase funding for the county’s fledgling bikeway network. Last year the county spent $600,00 on the bike network, but advocates say much more is needed to support the BikeHoward Master Plan Kittleman approved in 2016; they are advocating for $3 million.
“Our current bike route system is disconnected, underfunded and built in a piecemeal manner,” said Paul Gleichauf, a trustee at Columbia-based health philanthropy Horizon Foundation,which advocates for healthy living programs.
Immigration advocates from the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network urged the county to provide $750,000 for the nonprofit, including funding for another full-time staff member. CEO and Executive Director Hector Garcia testified that in the last year, demand for FIRN’s resources has doubled; the nonprofit is accepting immigration service appointment requests for June.
One of the strongest showings of the evening came from the Watershed Stewards Academy, a volunteer group originating from the University of Maryland Extension that educates residents on improving the quality of streams. Dozens of the academy’s 34 Howard County members came out to support its $105,000 request from the county to hire its first full time staff members to coordinate the program; this would be the first year the group received county funding, it was previously grant funded.
Howard County General Hospital had another first-time request The nonprofit hospital, a member of the Johns Hopkins medical system, requested $3 million. fIn previous years the hospital has asked for county funding for capital projects but not as part of the county’s operational budget.
Senior Director of Population Health and Community Relations Elizabeth Kromm testified that the money would go towards expanding the community care team, reducing the county’s shortage of primary care physicians and increasing behavioral health services.