With General Assembly leaders talking about local governments sharing the pain of the state's $1.5 billion projected revenue shortfall next fiscal year, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman knows his next budget could take a big hit -- up to $40 million -- despite Gov. Martin O'Malley's promise to keep local governments in the clear.
Ulman doesn't consider any cuts fair, you understand, because the state's problems result from two state government decisions -- to approve expensive educational reforms without a funding source and cutting state income tax rates in 2002 despite a slowing economy.
O'Malley, as a former mayor, understands that cutting state funds to local government "is a shell game" because that merely moves the burden, Ulman said. The same taxpayers still get all the bills.
But Ulman said the county is prepared for "reasonable numbers," such as a state cut of $5 million to $8 million.
"If there's a partnership where we're part of the solution, that's fine," he said.
The final decisions won't come until next year's General Assembly session is nearing an end in the spring, but Ulman is saying he is not likely to raise county property taxes to compensate for any state cuts.
"If anyone thinks we can easily raise revenue, they're mistaken," he said. "We're at our maximum on the piggyback [income tax]. Raising the property tax is not something I would consider lightly. People need to be prepared that these are cuts that will not be backfilled with local taxes."
But County Councilman Greg Fox, a western county Republican, is not buying Ulman's argument.
Fox frequently questioned giving county firefighters a 6 percent pay raise guaranteed for four years and teachers and police 5 percent raises for two years, plus hiring large numbers of new employees. The county's general fund, or locally funded budget, went from $734 million last fiscal year to $812.5 million for the fiscal year that began July 1.
"We knew that the state was looking at us as being part of the solution, and we shouldn't have been spending and spending as if we weren't going to be part of it," Fox said.
Fox and other members cautioned the council during budget talks in May that the county needed to limit new spending given impending state cuts, federal accounting changes requiring an escalating annual payment for future retirees' health benefits and the looming need for a new county government and courthouse complex.
"We could be looking at [state cuts] from nothing to $40 million," he said. "That's what we don't know. That's exactly why we should not have been on such a spending spree this year."
Ulman defended his decisions to move forward on priorities such as more police and fire protection, more teachers and environmental initiatives.
"We think we budgeted conservatively for the outlook," he said. "If we don't pay our police and firefighters a competitive wage, we lose them."
Guarding her time
Ulman administration officials and Howard County Council members are nothing if not electronically connected, but one council member has drawn a firm line, which sometimes makes her hard to reach.
County officials, elected and appointed, are often seen scrolling through text messages on their county-supplied Black Berry devices, trying to do several things at once. Most also have personal cell phones, computers in their offices and homes, as well as stationary home phones.
Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, has all that, too, but she is not one to quickly return every message or phone call.
"I am not a slave to mobile technology," Sigaty said. "If I'm in a meeting, I don't take my phones with me, unlike everybody else."
The councilwoman has been known to take two or three days to return phone calls, according to county officials who refused to be quoted, but who said it can be "frustrating" to attempt to contact her.
Even an issue of prime importance to her sometimes does not draw a return call. For example, Sigaty is preparing to introduce legislation next month to limit the height of buildings in Columbia -- an attempt to stop plans for a 23-story residential tower on the lakefront or any similar buildings.
Recently, a Sun reporter trying to speak to her about construction starting on the tower was not able to reach her despite sending two e-mails, leaving two messages at her council office and another message live with someone at Sigaty's home.
The councilwoman said last week that she thought the deadline for the article had passed.
But Sigaty said she has to guard her time.
"I cannot always be on call," she said. "This is a part-time job."
Time to ponder an issue and personal time also are important, she said.
"Often I look at stuff [messages] first thing in the morning, which for me is about 7 a.m.," Sigaty said. "If there's nothing I need to deal with, I shut things down and go about my personal business. I may check again at the end of the day. Part of this is having time to read and think and do some of the other work that's part of this job that's not being on one communications device or another."
Sigaty said she tries to return calls from other council members or administration officials and reporters "in a timely fashion," but if she knows a daily deadline is past, she might not call back.
Anyone who calls her personal cell phone who is not a family member is in another category: "I tend to ignore it."
The public isn't always understanding, she said, but she has heard no criticism from officials.
"I have a man calling my office all weekend wondering why I'm not there 24/7," she said. "I've got to have time to myself, too."