Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman began his first budget hearing for fiscal year 2017 without much in the way of talk or financial predictions.
Instead, he told community leaders and residents gathered for the annual tradition of lobbying for causes, projects and organizations worthy of funding, "I'm here to listen."
What he heard were requests from all the regulars – the school system, the library, the community college and a host of nonprofits – as well as some residents advocating for community projects.
The biggest request, per usual, came from Howard County Public Schools, which accounts for about two-thirds of the county's annual budget. Superintendent Renee Foose's capital budget request for next fiscal year totals $105 million and includes funding for a replacement Wilde Lake Middle School; renovations to Patuxent Valley Middle School, Swansfield Elementary School and Waverly Elementary School; and funds for construction of a 42nd elementary school and to plan for a 13th high school.
Foose said the school system, which currently educates nearly 55,000 students, continues to grow – bringing in more than 1,000 new children a year. Among these students is a growing population who face poverty, homelessness and disabilities, she said.
New to fiscal 2017 budget season are two unfunded mandates passed down by the state. Beginning next fiscal year, local school systems will be required to absorb the growth in teacher pension costs and provide pre-K for over 1,200 students.
"Our system must have the resources to prepare each Howard County child for success," Foose said.
Howard Community College's capital budget request totaled $14.5 million, $10.3 million of which would be used to complete a Science, Engineering and Technology building that broke ground in November 2014. Another $4.2 million would go toward systemic renovations on the campus, according to college President Kate Hetherington.
"Our priority is to build critically needed facilities and essential infrastructure to educate and train students for high-demand careers," she said.
The Howard County Library System's proposed capital projects for next fiscal year include construction of a new Elkridge branch ($4 million), renovation of the East Columbia and Central branches ($2.4 million), a feasibility study for a new branch in the southwest county ($277,000) and systemic renovations at a variety of branches, including roof, carpet and window repair or replacement ($2.8 million).
Library system President and CEO Valerie Gross also said she and the board had also submitted a critical needs addendum, which outlines how the system would operate with a 3 percent smaller budget, at Kittleman's request.
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"Our budget represents less than 2 percent of the county's overall budget," Gross said. "A small investment for a great return."
Several residents of the Font Hill community in Ellicott City asked Kittleman for sidewalks and bike paths along Frederick Road between Centennial Lane and St. Johns Lane, a stretch that they said is currently too dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Font Hill Community Association President Maryann Maher said her teenage children want to walk and bike from their house to the Miller branch library and to a new shopping center developed nearby, "but they just don't feel safe.
"One gets the sense that on this issue of walkability we are going backwards, and I know that's not in the sprit of Howard County," Maher said.
Other requests included:
- $125,000 for the Ellicott City Partnership, the nonprofit tasked with promoting the historic district
- $750,000 in planning funds for Bridge Columbia, a project to update a pedestrian bridge connecting the Village of Oakland Mills and downtown Columbia across Route 29;
- $150,000 for Columbia’s 50th birthday celebration;
- $50,000 for the Patapsco Heritage Greenway; and
- $3.4 million to cover cost overruns on construction of a replacement fire station in Elkridge.
After the hearing, Kittleman said his outlook for the upcoming budget season was a little more hopeful than his first budget season in fiscal 2016. Despite predictions of a $500 million surplus at the state level, he said he wasn't sure how much of that would be felt in the county.
"I don't think it could be worse than last year, but it's still going to be tight," Kittleman said. "There's a lot of really good projects out there – that's probably one of the hardest jobs for an executive, is choosing which ones to fund."