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Panel hears budget pleas


Like the fictional 19th-century British orphan Oliver Twist who dared to ask for "more," recipients of Howard County's governmental largesse came to the annual County Council budget hearing last night to plead for their fiscal portions.

The five-member council heard plea after plea not to cut the funds proposed by County Executive James N. Robey, from $10 million to match state funds for a new community college building to $10,000 to run a church group's after-school homework club for Ellicott City's public housing children.

Sharon Myer played a Bach viola selection to help the Baltimore Symphony's cause, and George Doetsch, president of the county Police Foundation, asked for no cuts to the police budget.

"You can reluctantly add my name for the approval of the executive's budget," said C. Merritt Pumphrey, president of the Second District Volunteer Fire Department and a county fire board member.

"I say 'reluctantly' because I hate to see taxes of any kind increased - ever," he said, referring to a proposed fire tax increase.

"We need the funds," Pumphrey said of the Fire Department, which is funded separately.

Robey's $811.2 million proposed budget calls for 332 new school employees, 6 community college professors, 10 new police officers, 5 more firefighters and 2 more deputy sheriffs to assist in child-support collections. In addition, Robey asked for a 1.75-cent increase in the fire property tax.

The major focus in Howard this year, as usual, is on schools, because of the importance of education to county residents and because schools are the only budget category to which the council can restore money cut by the executive.

Despite including an 11 percent increase in spending for schools, Robey did not fund $5 million of the school board's budget request. Two-thirds of the added $45 million in spending will go to education.

However, last night's hearing dealt with everything but schools, which will be the subject of a session tomorrow at school board headquarters on Route 108.

With slowly rising property tax assessments, the owner of a $150,000 home will pay an additional $79.25 in taxes, if the council approves the fire tax increase.

In addition, Robey proposed raising about $2.5 million in added revenues with higher development fees, which officials estimate would add $300 to $400 to the cost of a new home.

Most speakers last night praised the council and its efforts to spend money to improve life in the county.

That theme was repeated from the first speaker, Joan Athen, chairwoman of the board of Howard County Community College, to Dorothy L. Moore, director of the county's Community Action Council, one of the last to speak.

"This year, there is a special urgency," Athen said, explaining that the state is ready to pay half the cost of a new $20 million instruction building.

The college turned out dozens of employees and supporters for the hearing.

Several students and a business owner spoke in glowing praise of the 30-year-old Columbia-based institution.

Moore thanked the council for helping the wealthy county's poorer citizens - for example, by including funds to keep a family from losing its home of 15 years recently after a landlord raised the security deposit.

Moore said she is planning a Head Start expansion next fall and a summer program for the children of the working poor.

"Without Howard County, we wouldn't have a food bank," she said, adding that the poor rely increasingly on the food bank.

Irene Patton, a senior citizen, asked for continued support of her Fabulous 50's Plus dramatic group, and Mary Catherine Cochran spoke of the need for money to revise the county's list of historic properties.

The council will deliberate two more weeks and then take a final vote on next year's spending plan May 23, for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

An article in yesterday's Howard County edition about a County Council hearing on school spending this morning gave an incorrect location for the meeting. The hearing will start at 9 a.m. in the County Council offices in Ellicott City. The Sun regrets the error.
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