The Howard County Council on Wednesday passed capital and operating budgets for fiscal year 2015 that together totaled about $1.29 billion and provided funding for a plan that will accelerate the renovation and hand-over of Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion
All four Democrats on the council voted to approve the budget. Despite supporting extra funds for Merriweather, Council member Greg Fox, a Republican from District 5, voted against passing the overall budget, citing concerns about potential future tax increases and underfunding of pensions.
The Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, the eventual steward of Merriweather after renovations are complete, had initially been awarded $2 million in County Executive Ken Ulman's original budget proposal. The final budget sets aside $10 million for the commission, $9.5 million of which will be used as a loan for renovation work on the concert venue. The remaining $500,000 will be put toward cultural programming in the community.
Under the terms of the budget, the $10 million, which was cobbled together through a combination of surplus pay-as-you-go funds and $2 million of funds left over from fiscal year 2014, will be placed into a trust – a solution the county has used before in paying back bonds, but a first for this council.
Developer Howard Hughes, which currently owns Merriweather, has committed to investing $9.5 million into renovation work, which will include raising the pavilion's roof and updating its seating, restrooms and concession stands. After Howard Hughes has spent that first $9.5 million, which representatives from the company have said they expect to happen within two years, the commission can loan the $9.5 million provided by the county.
Renovations are expected to be complete within five years, with construction work taking place in the off-season. If Howard Hughes has not spent its $9.5 million on Merriweather by 2019, the money in the trust will revert back to the county.
The concept of the trust was initially proposed by Republican council member Fox, and was later co-sponsored by his Democratic colleagues.
After voting for the amendment, Fox joked that agreeing with Ulman and council Democrats on budgetary matters was a rarity. "I don't think that's happened in the past eight years," he said.
Other budget highlights include record levels of education funding and money for mental health initiatives.
The school board received $530.4 million, which exceeded last year's funding levels by more than $30 million. Some money was shifted around from the original proposal: $500,000 was added to a capital project that would move and replace some relocatable classrooms. The budget also removed $39,000 and $1.2 million in state funds for projects at Laurel Woods Elementary School and Patuxent Valley Middle School, respectively.
According to Budget Director Ray Wacks, the decrease in funds for those two projects was because of a shortfall in projected state aid. However, both projects are still expected to finish on time, said Ken Roey, chief facilities officer for the Board of Education.
Howard Community College received $31 million. Wednesday, the college's budget was amended to move $3 million from a fund balance to pay for a new parking garage on campus. Administrators had testified before the council that new parking spaces were critical as the college's enrollment expands.
A $2.5 million grant for the college to use on the new Pathway Scholarship program was approved with certain conditions: students receiving a scholarship from the fund must be Howard County residents, and 40 percent of the fund must be reserved for students who are dually enrolled or have graduated from high school in the past six years or fewer.
The library system received $22.3 million. Additional funds were added to the original budget proposal for a new Elkridge branch library and senior center to be completed on schedule.
The budget also funds multiple new mental health initiatives, introduced in response to a double murder-suicide at The Mall in Columbia this January. New additions include a second mobile crisis unit, an officer specially assigned to mental health matters and a mental health task force to identify and bridge gaps in mental health services.
At the close of the voting session, council members reflected on the budget, their last this term.
Though he didn't support the final budget, Fox said he had worked productively with other council members. "It's been a little more fun than contentious this year," he said.
Going forward, however, "there's still things we need to do," Fox added. He said county administration had indicated that future increases in the stormwater fee, fire tax and trash and recycling fees were possible. And he also wanted more money to be added to pension funds. "There are still concerns out there that we need to be worried about," he said.
The four Democrats on the council praised Ulman's budget priorities.
The budget, Watson said, "is how we put our values into action."
Council member Mary Kay Sigaty highlighted arts funding and grants to nonprofits. "This budget… speaks to the folks in the community who need us," she said.
Council member Jen Terrasa said she was glad to see funding in the budget to improve biking infrastructure in the county. She also lauded the Merriweather decision. "That's been near and dear to my heart, as a Columbia kid," she said.
Council chair Calvin Ball said council members had accomplished a lot over the two terms they had served together.
"It's been an honor to build a better county, maintain a Triple-A bond rating and move us all forward together," he said.
In a statement, Ulman praised the council for its work on the budget.
"The County Council has been a tremendous partner in our progress," Ulman said. "This spending plan is responsible, affordable and progressive."