The Howard County Council approved a $270 million budget yesterday that maintains the current level of services and provides raises for all school and county employees -- without increasing the property tax or piggyback tax rates.
"We are fortunate to be able to maintain services and not increase taxes," County Executive Charles I. Ecker said after a 2 1/2 -hour legislative session in which the fiscal 1993 budget was approved. "Citizens can expect their high quality of life to continue."
Although the council trimmed $1.1 million from the administration budget in order to restore $1.1 million that Dr. Ecker had cut from education, the bottom line was virtually unchanged from the $270.2 million proposal that the executive sent the council April 20.
Fifty-two percent of the budget will be spent on the school system. It will allow the Board of Education to maintain current class sizes and fund additional personnel needed to open two new schools.
The non-education portion of the budget will provide trash collection and a curbside recycling program for 7,000 more homes, stock new libraries in east Columbia and Elkridge, support a police cadet class of 18 recruits starting Jan. 1 and provide additional money for tourism development.
Although the piggyback and property tax rates remain the same, the budget includes a 5 percent motel-hotel tax for the first time, and a plethora of user fees, most of which are imposed on builders and developers. Eleven fees are new. Fifteen others are increased.
The property tax rate remains at $2.59 per $100 of assessed value. However, most property owners will be paying larger tax bills this year because of increased assessments. The owner of a home assessed at $150,000, for example, will be paying property taxes of $1,663 -- $78 more than last year.
The piggyback tax rate, the percentage of state income taxes collected for local use, will remain at 50 percent. Council members C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, and Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, had proposed raising the rate to 52 percent. Both voted to withdraw the resolution yesterday.
"I don't like to talk gloom and doom, but if the state cuts midyear, we're going to be hard-pressed to find [replacement] dollars," Ms. Pendergrass said. "I hope we don't look back in six or nine months and say, 'I wish we had raised the piggyback.' "
School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said the piggyback proposal could be an option next year if revenues don't keep up. "It looks like the council was buying another year for the economy to recover," Dr. Hickey said.
Councilman Gray had proposed raising the piggyback rate to restore $2.2 million that Dr. Ecker had cut from the Board of Education request. The tax increase would have generated an estimated $4.4 million.
Dr. Hickey said the fact that the tax increase would have raised twice as much as needed probably figured in its defeat. "The council would probably have had a hard time selling that to the public," the superintendent said.
Without the tax increase, the only way the council could restore money to education was to cut it from the administration. Both the administration and the Board of Education ended up with $1.1 million less than they asked for.
Dr. Hickey said the fiscal 1993 education budget "largely held the line at best, but after all the cuts in FY '92, there was very little restoration apart from the provision for increased staff and salary increments."
While he feels "good about those increases," Dr. Hickey continues to worry about "the continuing dilution of the educational program" in terms of supplies, materials, textbooks and staff development.
"We cannot continue indefinitely to dig a deeper and deeper hole," he said. "Sooner or later, we're not going to get out of it. We're going to have look this year to see if we can divert some funds for those purposes. We're going to have to bite the bullet on taxes [in fiscal 1994] if the economy does not turn around."