Howard County's financial outlook for next year looks as bleak as it has been the past few years, with projected new revenues barely expected to cover state-required spending increases for schools and debt service for new construction, county officials said yesterday.
If the county's preliminary budget forecast remains unchanged, Howard schools and government agencies likely will spend another spring scrambling to make ends meet -- possibly by cutting back on county and school services or delaying new programs.
The tight budget picture was first disclosed yesterday morning by Howard County Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown during a meeting between the council and school board.
The meeting featured tense exchanges between council members, school officials and board members over whether Superintendent Michael E. Hickey should cut the number of school system administrators more -- a possible prelude to difficult budget negotiations between county officials and the school board next year.
The county's latest forecast calls for a total county revenue increase of about $12 million next fiscal year beyond the county's $336 million operating budget for this fiscal year, Drown said.
About $7 million to $8 million of that $12 million would be needed for state required school spending to keep up with growing enrollment and at least $4 million would be needed to pay for the debt service of new construction projects, leaving few dollars for anything else.
"The budget is tight," Drown said. "I think it's going to be tight for the next two to three years."
County Executive Charles I. Ecker and county Budget Administrator Raymond Wacks both confirmed Drown's characterization of the county's financial outlook yesterday.
"It's a very preliminary number," Wacks said yesterday, but he acknowledged that the $12 million estimate is not going to grow very much -- even at best.
In recent years, the county's September preliminary numbers have proven to be conservative but fairly close to the final spring budget forecasts. While it's too early to talk about the possibility of a county tax increase, Wacks said, it's "pretty clear we're still in for tough times."
The $12 million increase projected for next year's county budget outstrips the $8-million increase in this fiscal year's county budget over last year's than the growth in this year's budget over last year -- but it's far less than the county's annual revenue growth during the boom years of the 1980s. Not included in the revenue estimate is income from the county's new trash feee, which is earmarked for rising cost of trash disposal.
Next year's county budget should be able to provide the additional money to schools required by state law to pay for enrollment growth, Ecker said yesterday, meaning that the county will not have to ask the Maryland State Board of Education for a waiver of the "maintenance of effort law."
"I doubt the state would grant us the waiver," Ecker said. To obtain a waiver, the county would have to prove to the state board that it is in such economic distress that it can't come up with the extra money to keep per-pupil spending from decreasing.
Nevertheless, if yesterday's meeting between the school board and county council is any indication, the tight budget picture seems sure to bring renewed tensions to the relationship between the county government and school system.
Last year's budget negotiations were accomplished with remarkably few disputes, largely because Ecker warned the school system not to ask for any more than the increase required by maintenance of effort -- and the superintendent and school board heeded that warning. The council approved the budgets proposed by Ecker and the school board almost untouched, offering little comment on education spending.
But during yesterday's meeting, Drown -- a former school system administrator -- renewed his call for Hickey to make more reductions in the school system's administration. Last year, Hickey cut about 15 positions in the school system's central office.
In an unrelated move, Hickey also reorganized the system's administrative layers this sumemer. Pointing to that reorganization -- one that has principals report directly to Hickey instead of to elementary, middle and high school "instructional nTC directors" -- Drown said Hickey should have eliminated these directors' positions instead of renaming them as "K-12 instructional coordinators."
"That to me was an opportunity to reduce layers," Drown said. "It was a golden opportunity that slipped by."
In 1995, Drown and other council Republicans tried to eliminate the then-vacant high school director position by shifting money for the director's salary to a different category of the school system's budget. But the school board made other cuts to save that position.
Hickey defended the instructional-coordinator positions yesterday as being essential. "It is more than one person can do," he said of the principals reporting directly to him. "I need those people."
During one particularly tense exchange, Drown said the school system will have to make tough choices, noting that Hickey is going to have to decide between funding programs in the schools and paying the salaries of central-office administrators.
"Will we have the technology magnet program or will we have [instructional coordinators] Gene Streagle and Alice Haskins?" Drown asked.
Hickey snapped back in reply: "Darrel, you know better than that."
School board members then joined Hickey in defending school system administrators. The public "wants accessibility and wants their phone calls returned" from administrators, said board member Sandra French. "It's a balancing act."
Pub Date: 9/17/96