Advertisement

Howard lawmakers discuss proposed fire tax hike and increasing school funding

Howard County lawmakers are considering adding $8 million to the school system’s proposed operating budget to maintain class sizes and teacher jobs, among other things. The move drew criticism from County Executive Calvin Ball.

Earlier this year, Ball proposed a $605.2 million operating budget for the school system — $84 million less than the school board’s request.

Advertisement

Councilwomen Deb Jung and Liz Walsh last week proposed amendments that would divert money from departments that had historic surpluses and carryover balances from last fiscal year. Money would also be moved from funded job vacancies across the county. Departments impacted would include county vehicle services, police, the Department of Public Works, and the Department of Planning and Zoning.

At the behest of Councilman Opel Jones, county officials whose operating budgets would be impacted on Friday went before lawmakers, imploring them to not move their funding to the school system’s budget.

Notably, Department of Planning and Zoning director Valdis Lazdins said they would be unable to fill four positions while Department of Public Works director Jim Irvin said at least 50 positions would remain unfilled.

In the Friday work session, Jung twice noted a similar measure put forth by then-Councilman Ball last year.

Ball, alongside then-Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, co-sponsored a successful measure that gave the school system an additional $5.1 million to maintain class sizes. Ball and Terrasa diverted money from a variety of departments including contingency funds from the Department of Technology and Communication Services, Office of Risk Management, the Office of Human Resources and county vehicle services, Jung noted.

Walsh and Jung’s proposal “would weaken our support for public safety, public works and hinder our ability to respond to ever-growing cybersecurity threats,” Ball said in a statement.

“Though my proposed budget did not increase property taxes, these cuts may necessitate a tax increase as a consequence of the County Council’s decision to give the school system more money.”

Walsh and Jung pushed back on Ball’s suggestion their proposal creates the need for a tax increase, noting the money accounts for less than one percent of the overall proposed operating budget.

Jung and Walsh said their proposal does not impede ongoing county operations. They noted the measure would move $400,000 out of the police overtime fund which, on average, carries over $1.5 million each year, they said.

“The $8 million will pay for preserving class size and teachers’ jobs as they are now,” they said in a joint statement.

“We’re open to any alternatives. But we are committed to finding this money in the budget and funding this significant gap in the schools,” Jung said in the Friday work session.

In a statement, Councilwoman Christiana Mercer Rigby said the measure proposed by Jung and Walsh does not “fund the priorities that the school system outlined in their strategic plan and subsequent budget work sessions.” She noted specifically the proposal would also help fund a bus routing software project and increase substitute teachers’ pay by $5 a day before taxes which, Rigby said, was not outlined as a top priority by the school system.

“Ultimately, I think this is a short-term band-aid. We need to have a meaningful conversation about what type of school system we want to have and how we will fund it,” she added.

Councilman David Yungmann, the county’s lone Republican lawmaker, also proposed amending Ball’s proposed fire and rescue tax.

Advertisement

Citing the need to build and support two additional fire stations, Ball filed a measure to increase the rate by 6 cents — or 34%. The tax is assessed on real property, including farms, buildings and residences. It’s also assessed on business personal property, including furniture and equipment. The rate has not changed in six years, according to a county press release.

Yungmann proposed slowly phasing the tax in over three years — roughly 10% annually. The County Council would have to vote every year to phase it in.

Ball said Yungmann’s move would “undermine” his proposal. The fire department has “been underfunded for years and [is] approaching a deficit of $7 million,” he said.

The Ball administration anticipates the county will receive an additional $1.1 million in state and federal grant funding for capital projects meant to ease future flooding in historic Ellicott City, according to an amendment filed by officials.

Mark DeLuca, deputy director of the Department of Public Works, previously said the Ball administration is “pursuing” a public-private partnership to pay for the two most expensive projects — the north tunnel and a large retention pond located south of the Tiber River. All other projects, including the Maryland Avenue culvert and smaller retention ponds, will be paid with bonds and revenues in the capital budget.

The plan is estimated to cost between $113 million and $140 million and to be complete by mid-2025.

The County Council will approve and adopt the proposed operating and capital budgets Wednesday.

Advertisement
Advertisement