For all the weeks of study and debate, the hundreds of questions asked and dozens of amendments offered, the new Howard County Council made almost no changes in County Executive Ken Ulman's first budget, which takes effect July 1.
In passing a $1.3 billion operating budget and a $354 million capital spending plan, the council's only substantial change was to remove $1.6 million from a fire department contingency fund and use it to limit the fire property tax increase to 1 cent per $100 of assessed value countywide. The move eliminated an additional 2-cent fire tax rate increase in rural areas. The council also shifted $1.2 million in school funds in the capital budget to aid planning for a new or renovated Mount Hebron High School.
Total spending in the operating budget, which adds 517 positions, will grow by 10.7 percent. The budget includes 5 percent pay raises for police officers and teachers and 6 percent raises for firefighters. Other employees are due 3 percent raises.
The final voting session on the budget Wednesday produced a few surprises.
Greg Fox, the council's only Republican, persuaded Columbia Democrats Calvin Ball and Mary Kay Sigaty to support his bid to eliminate a fire tax increase that would mainly affect his district. Later, Fox was the only council member to vote against the operating and capital budgets, which passed, 4-1.
Fox said that cutting the fire contingency fund would merely return it to the same levels of four of the last six years. "It's twice as high as it was in a number of those years," he said. In addition, he contended that the fire budget is likely to have surpluses over the next few years and that the county has ways to address emergencies.
"All of the proposed projects and agreements are accommodated with this amendment," Sigaty said as she sided with Fox and Ball, a former firefighter, to cut the contingency fund on a 3-2 vote.
Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, opposed the cut, arguing that if the county has to add just one career firefighter position to a volunteer station in the rural county, the annual cost can reach $250,000 because it takes 4.5 firefighters to staff one position 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If a ladder truck or other fire vehicle has a serious accident, replacement costs can reach up to $1 million, she said.
After the vote Wednesday, Fox said he is worried that the 517 new positions in Ulman's budget may cost too much, considering possible state budget cuts next year and looming local expenses for school renovations, a new county office campus and courthouse complex, and growing annual payments for retiree health benefits.
Courtney Watson, the Ellicott City Democrat who spoke loudly and often during budget deliberations against needlessly raising taxes, voted against Fox's fire tax cut, which passed, 3-2.
"We can and should provide tax relief to our citizens this year," she said. "[Fox] and I agree there should be tax relief, but I'm concerned that this is only tax relief for the west."
Watson said she wanted a general, countywide property tax cut, which the majority of council members would not support. Although she called Ulman's budget "just a little too aggressive," she said she voted for the final budget bill because it was reached through an open, democratic process.
Terrasa surprised Watson at one point by voting for a sub-amendment to one of Watson and Fox's budget-cutting bills, but then joined a 3-2 majority in defeating the larger proposal, which would have reduced the general property tax rate by 0.44 cents.
Watson loaded the agenda with budget amendments, followed by amendments to amendments, in a vain attempt to slightly cut the general property tax rate and to stop the use of county money to help Howard Community College buy Belmont, the historic Elkridge estate and conference center.
"I feel very strongly that local tax dollars should not be spent on this project," Watson told her colleagues, especially because the state Department of Natural Resources may be willing to buy the property, which is surrounded by Patapsco Valley State Park.
"Every community group has opposed this," she added, listing them by name.
She did win council approval for an amendment that would give the county the right to buy Belmont if the college ever stops using it, but Ulman's request for $5 million to buy and renovate the estate remained in the budget by a 4-1 vote.
Cathy Hudson, who heads the Save Belmont coalition and attended the session, took the defeat philosophically. "The reality is, it doesn't matter who owns Belmont. Belmont will own whomever owns it," she said, vowing to continue to work to balance college programs and historic preservation at the estate.
Ulman, who also characterized his budget as "aggressive" in seeking public safety, environmental and education improvements, declared himself "really pleased" overall, though unhappy with the fire department tax change.
"To drain the contingency fund, I think, is unwise," he said. "Part of me is glad they didn't cut other things, but the most important part of my job is to prepare for emergencies."
By the numbers
Highlights from Howard County's fiscal 2008 budget, which takes effect July 1:
339 new jobs for the county school system, including 201.5 positions for teachers.
The fire property tax rate moves up 1 cent in the eastern county to 13.55 cents per $100 of assessed home value. In the western county, the rate also increases 1 cent, to 11.55 cents.
The general property tax rate remains unchanged at $1.014 per $100 of assessed value. For each penny of property tax, the county gets $3.1 million in revenue.
$4 million goes to Howard County General Hospital to help with its expansion.
The Rainy Day Fund, available in case of a fiscal crisis, now at $38.4 million, will rise to $45.1 million July 1.
Howard County will set aside $14 million this year for future retiree health benefits - an amount that is slated to increase each year until the county is setting aside $40 million annually toward this $477 million unfunded liability.