New money fuels budget


Higher revenues are helping to fuel Howard County's first $1 billion budget proposal, including modest increases for public safety and education, though County Executive James N. Robey said he still would shave $8.4 million off the school board's request.

The board would still get 62 percent of all new revenue in the fiscal year beginning July 1, enough to hire 275 more school employees and open the new Marriott's Ridge High School in August. Howard Community College would get funding to fill 16 more positions, and the central library branch would get money to stay open Sundays year-round.

The executive's budget would not cut county property tax rates 2 cents like the spending plans proposed in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Harford counties, but his wouldn't increase general tax rates either, with one exception.

The county's nearly nine-year-old trash disposal fee would go up $50 a year per house from the $125 imposed in 1996, generating an additional $4 million in the coming fiscal year. But Robey would drop the $12 residential dumping fee at the Alpha Ridge Landfill. Money for a 3 percent pay increase for county workers also is included in the proposal.

"Like the governor, we're not increasing taxes. There's no new taxes," Robey said, referring to the trash fee and the partisan argument over whether state fee increases are really tax increases.

Though the tax rate will not rise, higher state property assessments will mean homeowners' property tax bills will rise an average 5 percent in July. A $350,000 house would generate $183 more in county real estate taxes.

The County Council has until June to make cuts or add more funds for schools. A public hearing is scheduled for tomorrow night in the George Howard Building.

Robey's budget is premised on the need to rebuild the government after three years of recession-driven belt-tightening. It is funded by higher-than-expected revenues that added $62.1 million to county coffers - a 10 percent increase.

"We're still trying to dig ourselves out of the hole we were in the last three years," he said. Rebuilding government is a higher priority than a token tax cut, he said.

The new money would pay for 10 new police officers, a police chemist, two sheriff's deputies for court security and 15 more firefighters. It would fill 39 vacant county jobs out of the 100 kept open for payroll savings in recent years.

Robey said he believes that most residents are looking for a middle ground in the debates over taxes and school spending.

"They want their tax dollars spent wisely," he said. "They want good schools, they want responsive public safety, their streets plowed. That's what we try to do."

Although Robey's spending request is 10.5 percent higher than the current budget - exceeding his stated goal of about a 7 percent increase - he said the extra revenue enabled him to do it.

More than $11 million of that is going for building projects, including $3 million to help Howard County General Hospital's planned expansion. As a contrast, the executive said, the county could only devote $5.2 million to capital expenses over the last three years combined.

The school board would get $362.6 million in county funds under Robey's request, an increase of $28 million over this year. The board asked for $36.4 million more. Robey's decision left school officials with mixed feelings.

"It leaves us better than sticking to that original 7 percent," said school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, who feared cuts of up to $12 million in the budget request. "In some ways this is very good news, except we now have to find a way to make up for the $8.5 million" Robey did cut, he said.

Courtney Watson, the board chairman, agreed with Cousin's assessment, though she wondered why schools are to get an 8.5 percent increase if overall county spending is to increase more than 10 percent.

Still, "in some ways we're better off than we anticipated," she said.

Part of the overall increase is due to factors beyond local control, such as a nearly 18 percent increase in health insurance costs, $700,000 in higher fuel costs, $600,000 for jail inmate medical care and $3 million more for pensions.

Robey also provided $100,000 in county money to supplement $475,000 in state funding for dredging Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia, plus $250,000 to pay for a planning study of development of the town's central core.

Council reactions to the budget plan were mixed.

Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he will be looking for at least $1 million to cut to fund the tax deferral plan for seniors and low-income people that he and Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon support. Robey said he, too, favors those proposals.

"Fortunately, the economy has made a turn in Howard County," Guzzone said.

But Merdon criticized the size of the spending increase, noting Robey's frequent references to a 7 percent ceiling.

Fellow Republican Charles C. Feaga, who represents the western county, said he opposes spending county money for a development plan that will benefit General Growth Properties, the company that bought the Rouse Co.. "General Growth should do that," he said.

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