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Howard County Council adopts $1.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2017

The County Council adopted a $1.8 billion budget Thursday.
The County Council adopted a $1.8 billion budget Thursday. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun Media Gro /)

The Howard County Council voted unanimously on Thursday to adopt a $1.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2017, a package that includes modest increases over last year amid a cautiously optimistic economic outlook for the county.

This year's budget, which included two amendments crafted as the budget was adopted, reduces borrowing to $91.5 million from $96 million last year.

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Despite a push from the Howard County Public Schools System to restore funding to avoid what school leaders called "devastating" cuts, the budget does not provide additional funding to the school system above the $808.4 million in the council's proposed budget, which represents a $18.1 million increase over last year and is the second-highest increase over the last eight years.

The Kittleman administration directed funding into certain categories of the school budget in order to fund collective bargaining agreements with teachers, special education and 56 new teacher positions.

"We asked repeatedly, what do you really need?" said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa. "No change. No request [from the school system]... it's beyond me how we got to this point."

Some council members echoed Terrasa's concerns Thursday, citing concerns about lack of transparency in the school budget and limited information about the need for additional changes.

School officials contended the budget, which does not cover $34 million in fixed charges, does not fund benefits that are part of negotiated union agreements. The school system projects its health and dental fund, will end in a $12 to $15 million deficit this year.

The decision will prompt the school system to make "difficult decisions that are necessary to prepare for the next year," John White, the school system's communication director, wrote in a statement, reaffirming the school system's commitment to meet its obligations to the teachers union.

Beyond the budgeting for the school system, the budget also includes $1.3 million for a new library in Elkridge and $2.6 million in renovations for the Central and East Columbia branches. Roughly $3.6 million will fund a fire station in Elkridge, increasing the total price tag of the delayed project — originally slated to be completed this summer — to an estimated $19.5 million.

The County Council will also receive 13 percent more in funding compared to last year to fund five district aide positions and a new position in the auditor's office — a rare staffing increase over the last decade.

The budget includes $1 million to plan and design a third police station in Columbia and $10.4 million in upgrades to an "aging" public radio system.

Howard Community College funding will increase 4 percent over last year, or roughly $1.2 million, including costs for a new science, engineering and technology building.

A multi-year plan to create a new nonprofit center to house human service organizations under one roof prompted a last-minute amendment to increase assurances about the long-term sustainability of the project.

The Council unanimously voted to freeze funding until the county administration, the Association of Community Services, the Howard County Housing Commission and tenant organizations create a memorandum of understanding to address the nonprofits groups' concerns about the model's long-term sustainability and the administration's overall financial commitment.

The agreement, if approved by the County Council, would provide assurance that the county will commit at least $210,000 per year in rent subsidies. This year's budget also includes one-time startup costs of $300,000.

The commission will act as the master lease owner of the center while the Association of Community Services, a major community service organization, takes a defined leadership role. Tenants would enter into multi-year lease agreements and costs that cover items like technology expenses would be shared.

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Fox said requiring the council to approve a memorandum attempts to "chase a moving target." The legislative process required to adopt the memorandum could "jeopardize" the agreement with the landlord, according to Tom Carbo, the commission's director.

The Council also passed a measure to increase septic waste hauler fees at the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant, which serves the central part of the county, in order to help the county cover the costs of the program at the plant and close what some council members called a "subsidy" for waste haulers.

The amendment, which proposes to close the gap between the county's costs for the program and revenue from fees by half in the next fiscal year, would increase septage waste fees, which are assessed per 1,000 gallons, from the current proposal of $4.68 to $14.91; grease traps fees from $41.58 to $71.53; and holding tank waste fees from $4.68 to $4.84.

The budget also includes funds for a $23.1 million parcel of land in Jessup for at least two school sites. In a push to encourage the school system to maintain ownership of the site, the Council included a last-minute change to require the Board of Education to confirm they are requesting the site, which will likely be purchased in July.

In a work session this month, Superintendent Renee Foose said the school system learned of the site acquisition "in the same press release" as the council. The administration denied Foose's claim. County spokesman Mark Miller said the school system "has remained involved throughout the process and the concept designs were developed using their input."

The Council voted to allow the board to transfer funds between major categories of the fiscal year 2016 operating budget, including a $7.2 million transfer to the fixed charges category.

The Board of Education will meet at 8 am on Tuesday, May 31 to adopt its budget for fiscal year 2017.

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