School system may not get all it wants; Executive insists county can't afford $20 million budget rise; 'Some cuts will be made'; Superintendent terms spending blueprint 'reasonable' request


Howard County school officials may want a $20 million-plus budget increase next year, but they're not likely to get that much, County Executive James N. Robey said yesterday.

"It caused me to take a deep breath when I saw that," he said, referring to newspaper articles about the budget request. "They know some cuts will be made. I know we can't afford $20 million [more] in the school budget."

The budget was formally presented to the county school board yesterday and will go to Robey once the board finishes with it next month. He will make changes and submit his entire county budget in April to the County Council -- whose members can reverse his cuts and raise taxes if they wish.

Although school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's request would require $16.1 million in new county money, that's likely to increase after the county's 3,100 teachers finish negotiating pay raises that could tack on another $5 million to $10 million.

But a number of factors are working against such a large budget increase.

Robey has said repeatedly that barring a rare emergency, he won't raise county taxes. At the same time, income tax revenues will be $5.5 million lower this year because of former County Executive Charles I. Ecker's tax cut, and revenues based on capital gains from the stock market are less certain this year.

"Those are the concerns we have," said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director. "The issue we're wrestling with is how aggressive to be in our revenue estimate this year. The income tax is the big question."

According to Hickey, the county deliberately underestimated revenues last year, resulting in an unexpected $12 million surplus in the fiscal year ended June 30 -- money that could have been used to make up the $5.5 million cut from this year's school budget.

Wacks denies that. "Everybody had a surplus," he said about most of Maryland's suburban counties. "It's easy to say after the fact that we should have known the stock market would go up to 9,000."

But Hickey downplays the potential for another all-out budget battle like the kind that split the county during last year's election campaigns.

"I think it's politically naive to think you'll get every dollar you ask for," Hickey said. But in the next breath, he said his request is "realistic" and the consequences of any cuts will "be identified" for the public. "The people have a right to know," he said.

Teacher raise uncertain

The superintendent said the board will honor any pay raise the teachers negotiate, regardless of budget cuts or what other county workers get.

"We never fail to fund what we have negotiated, even if we have to cut programs to do it," he said, explaining that "the reason we have the quality system we do is because of the people we have. It's shortsighted to keep programs and shortchange people."

For his part, Robey doesn't like the idea of giving one group of workers a different cost-of-living pay raise than others receive.

"When the teachers got more than other county employees, it caused a major morale problem," the former police chief said. He's planning to compare salaries of Howard's workers with those in other counties before deciding how to handle pay issues.

Council reaction mixed

Council members are taking a cautious approach this nonelection year, but all, as did Robey, said education is their top priority -- something Hickey is fond of repeating.

Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a Columbia Democrat, said he would be "somewhat hesitant" to cut the school budget because the department is still recovering from years of "hold-the-line" budgets. At the same time, he says, "I don't think there's a need to raise taxes."

Mary C. Lorsung, a West Columbia Democrat often allied with Gray, said she agrees with Hickey that opportunities for progress were missed because of underestimated revenues.

Freshman member Allan H. Kittleman, a west county Republican, says he suspects Hickey may ask for a bit more than he figures to get as a tactic, but the debate this nonelection year is likely to be less fractious.

"I've got four kids, or I'll have four by next week," the attorney said about the expected arrival of a new Kittleman baby. "All of us realize that the most important function of the county is to make sure our kids get educated."

Everyone ran for election as an education booster, he agreed, but, "We also ran on accountability."

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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