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With opposition from Kittleman, move to expand Howard Council's budget authority heads to ballots in November

In a 4-1 vote, the Howard County Council pushed for a charter amendment to expand its authority over the budget.
In a 4-1 vote, the Howard County Council pushed for a charter amendment to expand its authority over the budget. (Fatimah Waseem)

A move to expand the Howard County Council's authority over the county's budget will head to ballots in November.

The measure, which passed in a 4-1 council vote Friday, allows the council to move money it cuts from the executive's budget into two categories: the county's pension fund or the county's reserve fund.

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The council's lone Republican, Greg Fox, voted again the measure. Fox and County Executive Allan Kittleman, also a Republican, lashed back at the proposed charter amendment.

Kittleman called the move, which would change the county's charter, "a solution looking for a problem."

"The current system has worked well in the county and is consistent with how the state and other local counties handle their budgets. … If the council deems a project not worthy of funding, then it should reduce taxes, not put the funds in a redundant contingency account," wrote Kittleman in a statement.

Fox, who agreed with moving money for retiree benefits, said the change could cause a "train wreck," and unrelentless "political football."

The Republican questioned why Democrats on the council sought the changes when the council made history by unanimously passing Kittleman's last two budgets.

Councilman Jon Weinstein, who proposed the measure because of frustrations with the council's limited budget authority, fired back Friday.

"This is not a political maneuver," said Weinstein emphatically after contentious back and forth with Fox. "This just makes sense."

Currently, the council can only reduce the executive's budget by either moving funds to the school board up to the amount requested by the board, or by decreasing taxes.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who also proposed the change, said the charter amendment was necessary to "create a more robust conversation" between the council and the executive.

The council often places budget conditions on specific items in the budget before funds are spent, but Councilwoman Jen Terrasa said this method was a "very inartful way of putting a check and balance on the budget."

In May, for example, before spending any funds, the administration was required to come to the council with a bill on its plans for a nonprofit center amid concerns about how financially secure it was for tenants.

At the voting session Friday, the council unanimously tabled all plans to redevelop downtown Columbia to September.

The council also passed regulations for new fueling stations in the county.

The measure, passed in a 4-1 vote after nearly two years of debate on how to incorporate new stations to keep up with changes in the industry, was stripped of a provision that set limits on distances between stations.

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Sigaty pushed for the change, which she said exclusively targets her district.

Overall, the new regulations are a slimmed-down version of recommendations made by a task force directed by the council to study the issue.

Meagan Braganca, chairwoman of the county's Sierra Club, said she was disappointed the regulations only set a 100-foot minimum between stations and floodplains, streams and rivers.

The measure requires stations to be at least 300 feet from places like schools and parks; increases the distance of stations from public roads; and doubles the minimum size of stations to the modern model of 40,000 square feet.

Fox, who voted against the measure, said he was concerned it didn't account for multiple sources of fuels and could inadvertently hurt some fuel station owners, some of whom may be unaware of the changes.

Ball said he was confident future concerns, should they arise, could be addressed through zoning amendments.

The council also passed a zoning amendment that would expand residential development in the Transit-Oriented District, a mixed-used zone designed to maximize access to public transport.

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