Howard County Executive Ken Ulman revealed a package of cost-saving moves worth a combined $6.8 million a year at his State of the County speech to nearly 400 Chamber of Commerce members yesterday.
Against a background of a generally upbeat assessment of the county's economic posture, Ulman stressed his attempts to move forward on issues such as health care access and recycling, while also looking for ways to save money.
The approach seemed well received by the large and influential business group, whose members laughed at the executive's humor.
"Some of you may think this is leading in a liberal, tree-hugger direction," said Ulman, a Democrat, about his passion for recycling toward the end of the speech. "Not that there's anything wrong with that," he added to titters at the old Seinfeld television comedy line.
He said that every increase in recycled material means that there is less the county must pay to ship trash to a landfill.
"Just to recap ... For trash, we pay them; for recycling, they pay us. So clearly, it is in everyone's best interest to increase our recycling and minimize our trash," said Ulman, 33.
Harry "Chip" Lundy, a veteran county builder who supported Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker in the 1990s and business-friendly Democrat James N. Robey after that, said he has no beef with Ulman.
"I'm happy with him," Lundy said after the speech at Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City.
Chamber President Pam Klahr announced that the chamber has begun planning ways to get more businesses to recycle, and it will offer free paper shredding in front of the chamber's Columbia office Feb. 21.
Now, Ulman is more worried about his next budget and what pain more state cuts might bring.
In addition to saving $500,000 a year starting July 1 by eliminating the county government's cable television studio and laying off up to nine full- and part-time people who run it, Ulman listed other ways he intends to save:
Purchasing health insurance jointly for employees of the school system, county government, Howard Community College and the library system will limit cost increases to 3 percent next year, he said, saving a projected $3.7 million.
Modernizing the county's computer and telephone systems will save $2 million a year.
Taking over collection of real estate recordation tax from the Circuit Court Clerk would eliminate a 5 percent state administrative fee, saving $600,000 a year. This would require County Council approval.
Ulman also emphasized in his 19-page speech the economics of his pioneering health care access program, intended to provide medical care for about 20,000 uninsured residents.
When uninsured residents get treatment in hospital emergency rooms, those with insurance pay an average of $1,070 a year in higher premiums to subsidize the hospitals' uncollected debts under Maryland law.
Ulman painted an otherwise rosy picture of Howard County, where unemployment remains the lowest in the state and median household income remains the state's highest.
Crime is down, he said, and New York rating houses still consider Howard in the elite class of investment opportunities nationally.
"A year ago, I told you the state of the county was strong. Today, I am happy to announce that the state of Howard County is still strong - and getting stronger," he said.
Unlike nearby counties facing revenue shortfalls and imposing hiring freezes, Howard County's budget is projected to produce a $13.7 million surplus by fiscal year's end, June 30. If that proves true, it would be significantly lower than the previous year's surplus of $22.7 million.
Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, has said he is nervous about the unpredictability of income tax receipts and the continuing real estate downturn, and Ulman's moves to economize reflect that and an attempt to ward off further state cuts in aid to the county.
The surplus, he told the County Council last month would be a "small, reasonable" one compared to the county's $812 million locally financed budget.
During the General Assembly's special session, Howard lost about $8.8 million in expected state aid, mostly to the school system. Another round of state budget cuts is expected during the 90-day General Assembly session that began last week, but how much of that will come from aid to local governments is not known.