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County Council OKs 46% increase in expense budgets; New Democratic majority wins after extended debate over spending priorities


Even with three new members, the Howard County Council bickered over an old sore spot yesterday -- a tiny but politically sensitive sliver of their $1.8 million budget that covers members' expenses.

As usual, the fight featured Republicans vs. Democrats, but this time the three Democrats won by virtue of their new council majority.

Much of the fighting centered on 16-year veteran Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a Columbia Democrat and this year's council chairman.

Council members voted 3-2 to raise their individual expense budgets by $2,200 a district, starting July 1 -- a 46 percent increase.

In addition, the Democratic majority approved $3,965 for travel expenses for Gray because he is scheduled to be installed as president of the National Association of Counties during the group's convention in St. Louis in July. The four other council members were allotted about $1,200 each.

Allan H. Kittleman, a freshman west county Republican, raised objections after Mary C. Lorsung, a second-term Columbia Democrat, moved to increase members' expense budgets from the $4,800 set in 1996 to $7,000 a year.

Kittleman pointed out that members typically have had $600 to $700 left over each year, and fellow freshman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, moved to reduce the annual expense budget to $4,000.

"I know it's a small amount, but I think it says something," Kittleman said. He argued that during their campaigns, the council members compared public budgets to voters' personal household expenses. "This is the closest thing we have in the budget to a household," he said.

Gray, who used virtually all his expense money last year, said he had to pay $1,000 of county-related auto expenses out of his pocket because the budgeted amount is too low.

"I don't like the way we're doing this," Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat, said before voting. "It's a question of individual needs," which are often different, he said, adding that he would not spend $7,000 though he voted to approve it.

What annoyed Gray was criticism of the money he requested to pay legislative aide Sharon Dehaney's way to the July national convention.

Kittleman, who said he's "very proud" Gray is to be president of the counties' association, said he had contacted the group and learned it would pay both Gray's and his aide's expenses, meaning no extra travel money should be needed. Gray denied that, adding later that "that really personalized it."

Karen McRunnel, an executive assistant at the association's Washington headquarters, said the group would pay expenses for an aide once Gray becomes president, but would not cover costs for Dehaney until then.

Before the vote, Merdon said increasing County Council spending isn't right, given other needs the county might not be able to afford. "We're going off the deep end. This is crazy," he said.

Gray criticized the debate, saying the time spent on a few thousand dollars would far exceed debate on the rest of the council's $1.8 million budget. He also complained that the Republicans are attacking him despite his bringing honor -- and potentially large grants -- to Howard County through his leadership in the national organization.

"It's a shame," Guzzone said later about the bickering.

"I've got kids in my district who can't read," he said, highlighting an issue of greater concern.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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