Bolstered by a robust economy, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's first operating budget provides major increases for public safety, human services and environmental initiatives, while giving the school system nearly everything it had requested.
Pay raises account for about $21 million, or about 27 percent, of new spending, including increases of 5 percent for police and teachers and 6 percent for firefighters. Other county workers would get 3 percent.
"It's frustrating to not be able to fully supply the requests, but I feel we were able to move our priorities forward," Ulman said about his $1.3 billion spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1. He presented the plan to County Council on Monday night.
Boosted by a $38 million surplus left from the current fiscal year, Ulman proposed to increase spending overall by 10.7 percent, though he noted that without the extra cash to be used for one-time purposes, the increase is 8.4 percent.
In addition to the pay raises and new recruits for county police and fire departments, the budget includes 341 more school system jobs, a 45 percent increase in county grants for human service nonprofits and a number of environmental pilot programs - including hybrid vehicles, solar energy for buildings and larger, wheeled recycling bins for people in the Elkridge area. A study is planned to outline the county's "carbon footprint" and suggest ways to cut pollution.
Ulman also wants to add 167 new general government positions - including 82 for police and fire - to bolster county agencies kept lean since the 2001 recession.
Ulman hopes to increase the police force by 100 officers in four to five years, he said, because he believes the ratio of police to population is too low.
If the council agrees, Howard homeowners would see their annual property tax bills rise, despite no change proposed in general tax rates. Assessment increases and a proposed fire tax increase would cause the higher bills that would cost the owner of a home valued at the county median of $450,000 an extra $363. In addition, Ulman proposed a 9 percent increase in water and sewer rates for those with public utilities to pay Baltimore's growing costs to operate and improve the system.
Howard's fire property tax - a separate levy used to fund fire operations - would rise 3 cents in the western county and 1 cent in the east, creating a single countywide rate of 13.55 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Ulman argued that an increase in paid staff, a new West Friendship volunteer fire station, more equipment and a $1.7 million plan to bury dozens of water tanks throughout the rural part of the county to help fight fires would equalize fire services countywide and lower home fire insurance rates at least as much as taxes would rise.
"A lot of the efforts of this budget are going toward the western portion of the county," said Fire Chief Joseph A. Herr.
The County Council has scheduled a hearing on the $353.7 million capital budget at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and a hearing on the operating budget - excluding schools - at 7 p.m. April 26. The education budget hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. May 5. The hearings will be in the council chambers in the George Howard Building.
Under the operating budget Ulman presented this week to the County Council, the school system would get all but $2.3 million of the $429.5 million in county funding that the school board requested.
"We're doing extremely well," said Ray Brown, the school system's chief operating officer.
"I think it shows some pretty strong support from our county executive," said Diane Mikilus, the school board chairman.
Ulman told the council that he wants $400,000 to buy 25 hybrid cars for county inspectors and another $400,000 to bring the electric/gasoline technology to the Howard Transit bus fleet, if the state approves money for five new buses.
A pilot project would use $100,000 to equip one or two small county buildings - such as a structure at Schooley Mill Park - with solar power, Ulman said.
The executive is also proposing to experiment with wheeled, covered blue recycling bins in Elkridge - to see if they would boost collections and reduce windblown trash.
"Hopefully, this budget indicates a willingness to do more," he said.
Susan Rosenbaum, director of the county Department of Citizen Services, agreed.
"This is, by far, a huge commitment from the county executive," Rosenbaum said about the increase in county grants to human service nonprofits to $4.2 million from $3 million. The funding includes $1 million for an expanded Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center and homeless shelter, and money to expand services at the North Laurel Metro Service Center. In addition, Ulman included $500,000 for implementation of the county's Human Services Master Plan.
Ulman received support for his fire tax proposal from Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who is also an insurance broker.
She said preliminary information she gathered Monday indicated the owner of a $1 million rural home could save up to $1,000 in insurance costs, depending on how close the dwelling is to a water tank. Several large houses in rural areas have burned to the ground for lack of water for fire fighting in recent years.
Councilman Greg Fox, a western county Republican who represents most of the rural area where the fire tax would rise by 3 cents, said he is wary of the idea.
"I'm skeptical and trying to gather information," Fox said, adding that "I fully support getting those [water] cisterns out there."