Calvin Ball began his first budget hearing as Howard County executive on Wednesday by reminding those in attendance of a sobering reality:
“I think there are some who might expect government to do everything,” said Ball at the hearing, held at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. “Sometimes, unfortunately, the fiscal realities don’t allow us to align everything with our needs, at least in that particular year…”
“That means sometimes, tough decisions have to be made,” he said.
Ball’s comments came nine months after a report from the county’s Spending Affordability Advisory Committee warned that county spending could outpace its revenue if not checked. While preliminary projections last year anticipated a 3.4 percent to 3.6 percent growth in county revenue over the next four fiscal years, the report urged spending restraint, noting: “Without changes to county revenues or expenditures, current patterns of spending are unsustainable in the long-term.”
Democrat Terri Hill plans to introduce a bill that would allow Howard County to levy a tax on disposable bags. The law exists in Washington, D.C. and Montgomery county. Baltimore City, Prince Georges county and the state legislature have failed to pass their own initiatives.
County revenue comes largely from taxes including property, local income, recordation and commercial income. Ball spokesman Scott Peterson said officials are unable to provide expected revenue amounts for the upcoming fiscal year, saying they won’t be fully known until the spring.
Last year the county approved a $1.6 billion operating budget — a 1.9 percent increase from the previous year — and a $146.9 million capital budget.
Hector Garcia, executive director of Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, spoke at Wednesday’s hearing and encouraged Ball to increase funding to the nonprofit, which provides support for foreign-born and undocumented immigrants.
Last year, the county contributed $639,738 of FIRN’s overall $1.1 million budget. In his testimony, Garcia said changes in federal policy and “national rhetoric” have resulted in an increasing need for the group’s services.
“Today, the volume of requests for services at FIRN is so high that our next available appointment is in the first week of March, with a wait list of 100 individuals,” Garcia said.
“Therefore, we are asking you to support increase capacity in areas that will also help process individuals faster, while generating revenue to help us achieve sustainability. We need to be able to reduce wait times,” he said.
Other testimony urged support for projects in the county. Several people spoke in favor of funding the $50 million plan to mitigate flooding in historic Ellicott City, a proposal that was supported by Ball’s predecessor, former county executive Allan Kittleman.
Throughout the campaign, Ball cast himself an opponent of portions of the Ellicott City flood mitigation plan. As councilman, he voted against the three bills that would have partially funded projects because amendments, which he believed would address shortfalls, were not included.
Pat Hersey, co-founder of Less Plastic Please, encouraged Ball to fund “educational outreach programs and an ad campaign on plastic pollution” to draw attention to the material’s impact on the environment.
“We must take action now,” said Hersey, who later presented to Ball a cotton bag made out of his blue campaign shirt. “We are in a plastic pollution crisis. We cannot afford any more missed opportunities.”
Less Plastic Please has requested that Del. Terri Hill introduce a state bill that would enable the County Council to consider placing a fee on plastic bags. The bill has seen opposition from the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and 50 signatories in an online petition — though Hersey says more than 600 have signed a petition encouraging the council to consider the fee.
More than 35 people wearing bike helmets came to the hearing to support increased funding for infrastructure for bikers. They said that out of 1,038 miles of roads maintained by Howard County, only 35 contain bike lanes. The county has 108 miles of shared use pathways for bikers and walkers located off the street — 90 of which are in Columbia.
Neighboring Montgomery County has 55.41 miles of “properly marked bike lanes,” 41.62 miles of “bike-friendly shoulders” and 1.68 miles of “separated bike lanes,” according to Neil Greenberger, a spokesman for Montgomery.
Bike advocates in Howard are asking for $3 million for the next three years to fund street bike lanes and shared pathways, expediting a policy of including infrastructure for bikers and walkers in new roads, and for Ball to submit to the County Council a master plan to improve walkways for pedestrians.
In February, the county Planning Board will review a preliminary budget from Ball and provide comments or recommendations. After that, the county executive will present a spending plan to the County Council in April, according to Peterson. The council must approve a final budget by June 1.