First budget for Ulman; now come the questions

The Baltimore Sun

A happy, relaxed-looking rookie Howard County Executive Ken Ulman presented his first operating budget to the County Council last week.

"Take it easy on me, being on the other side here," joked Ulman, a Democrat and former councilman, as he faced the five new council members. He was gratified, he said, to have enough revenue to pursue his primary goals - to boost county police and fire services, give more to human services and libraries and begin some pilot environmental programs, too.

Instead of ceremoniously reading a prepared speech, Ulman spoke informally to the council, hitting the high points of his spending plan, and winning some praise in return.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said Ulman has been open and cooperative with council members.

"I think we're off to a good start and setting the right tone," she said.

Even his proposed increase in the fire property tax did not spark instant criticism.

A cautious Councilman Greg Fox, a western county Republican, questioned whether Ulman's spending on fire services would make protection in the rural west equal to that offered in the metropolitan eastern county - and cause fire insurance rates to drop. But Fox did not immediately declare himself opposed to the tax increase.

Ulman was not shy about praising his efforts.

"I'm particularly proud of the record commitment to public safety," he said about hefty pay increases and a combination of 82 more jobs for the police and fire departments. County firefighters would get a 6 percent pay raise for each of the next four years under a tentative labor agreement, and police would get 5 percent a year for two years. Both unions strongly backed Ulman's election campaign last year.

"This is a sustainable budget," he said, adding that "I am candidly a bit anxious what will happen next year with state budget issues."

For the five council members who will be poring over the details of the $1.3 billion operating budget for the next few weeks, the experience will be no less unique than Ulman's.

This is their chance to ask big questions and also learn the vital minutia about how the government they were elected to help run really works.

Can the county afford a 10.7 percent spending increase? Should $4 million in surplus cash go to help Howard County General Hospital's expansion after county taxpayers gave the hospital $3 million last year?

What will the $450,000 Ulman added to the library materials budget buy? What will the four new positions in that agency do for the public? Library Director Valerie Gross said the new jobs would allow more activities - discussions, seminars and after-school programs for teenagers.

Many of the 16 proposed new public works jobs would deal with waste management tasks that council members and the public do not normally see performed. Are they all needed?

It's fine to hear about $3.3 million more, and 15 new faculty members for Howard Community College, but what will they do exactly, and how will that money be spent?

How would Housing Director Stacy L. Spann use seven new positions in his 31-job agency? Spann said he needs more property maintenance people and managers to take care of the county's public housing, plus specialists in project finance and research to plan new efforts.

Hiring 39 more firefighters and 32 more police recruits, plus 11 civilian public safety workers might sound good, but how long will it take to find them, train them and begin to see benefits?

Police Chief William J. McMahon said his agency spends nearly a year to accomplish all that, although the fire department has a recruit class set to begin next month and could get a head start. But Fire Chief Joe Herr said his department has 23 vacancies to fill, while the police have none.

Ulman has asked for money for two more correctional officers for the detention center and three new sheriff's deputies.

Another complex issue is the change in federal accounting standards that suddenly slapped Howard County with a $477 million liability for health insurance for county employees after they retire.

Ulman proposed putting $14 million away to begin satisfying that demand, rather than the $30 million suggested last year by then-County Executive James N. Robey. Ulman said the lower figure raised no objections with New York bond rating houses, and the amount put aside each year will increase, but he did not act to trim those benefits.

Then there is the school system, which takes about half the county's revenue each year. Teachers are due a 5 percent pay increase, and that, plus step increases and other pay improvements would cost $28.8 million. Ulman defended his decisions, saying, "This budget will allow us to continue to offer the top-ranked public school system."

With two former school board members now on the County Council - Watson and west Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty - the devil of that statement will be in the details.

GOP and TV

The county's three Republican legislators, state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, and Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller, have adopted a yearly program championed in years past by former state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader - challenging children to go one week without watching television.

The week in question, tomorrow through Sunday, is labeled "National TV Turnoff Week" by a nonprofit group called TV Turnoff Network that, according to its Web site, encourages children and adults to watch much less television "to promote healthier lives and communities."

"Children, especially, will be surprised to find out how many interesting things there are to occupy their time other than television," Kittleman said in an announcement.

An issues newsletter

Traditional publications might seem to be fading away in favor of electronic media, but not in every instance.

Mona Brinegar, the determined promoter of a stronger presence for independent voters in Howard County, has produced the first issue of Howard County Issues, a periodic newsletter available at county libraries, Columbia's village centers and at the group's Web site, www.howard

The first issue had a press run of 5,000 copies and features two state senators, Democrat Robey and Republican Kittleman, giving differing views on early statewide voting.

"This newsletter represents a venue for citizens to hear and speak directly with other citizens and political leaders on local issues," Brinegar said.

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