Parents not budging on budget concerns

The Baltimore Sun

Although this is the second year that parents from Mount Hebron High School have asked Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to withhold funds for a major renovation that they want changed, Ulman couldn't help commenting on one aspect of the spectacle.

"We're witnessing a pretty interesting phenomenon," he said, facing about 100 Mount Hebron supporters who festooned the County Council chamber in Ellicott City with yellow and black balloons -- the school's colors -- to make their point.

"I believe what's been proposed is the most expensive project in Howard County history -- for anything," he said. "It's just a remarkable occurrence." His comment came after Jim Boothe, similar to other speakers, said: "Do not fund the project. The plans put forth don't fund all the problems."

The hotly contested $54 million Mount Hebron renovation wasn't the only budget topic that more than 200 residents came to tell Ulman about at Thursday night's annual budget hearing, but it was what the largest group came to discuss.

Parents and teachers want Ulman to stop the project, despite school board approval, and insist the plans cover more things -- more classrooms, an improved cafeteria, air-handling system, plumbing and an entrance.

Standing in the back of the room, school board member Sandra French grimaced at the board's dilemma. "We'd love to do everything they want, but we haven't any solution for the dollars," she said.

Ulman began the evening by telling the crowd that state revenue estimates released that day project an additional $330 million decline, and county revenues also have been affected by a slowing economy.

But nearly every witness from school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin to Ellicott City Middle School sixth-grader Becky Goodridge made a strong case for spending more money in fiscal 2009.

Becky was part of the second-largest group at the hearing -- those who want a 50-meter swimming pool as part of an aquatic center that could cost $14 million or more.

The next-largest contingent advocated for Howard Community College's budget.

Diane Goodridge, Becky's mother, proposed a possible pool solution -- partnering with the Columbia Association and perhaps the college to build and operate the center. She suggested using vacant Hopewell Park, a former school site off Snowden River Parkway.

"I don't envy your jobs. I really don't, sitting up there trying to decide how to spend our money," said Alex Solomotis, whose daughter, Samantha, also asked Ulman for a pool. He replied that a feasibility study is under way and could be completed by June.

The executive is to reveal his capital budget April 1, and the operating budget April 22. The County Council has until June 1 to make changes, and the new budget year begins July 1.

The range of requests was on full display even before the hearing in testimony e-mailed to Ulman's budget office.

Included in the mix were requests from Elkridge parents, backed by the Greater Elkridge Community Association, who want the county to buy land now for a future Elkridge High School, expand the Elkridge and Savage libraries and build a new community center.

"We are one of the few areas of Howard county that does not have its own high school," wrote Christy Dohmen of Downs Ridge Court in Elkridge. The school board is asking for $6.3 million for a combined cafeteria and auditorium at Elkridge Elementary School.

Other requests were for more staff for the county's new environmental office, a plea to continue funding that helps Legal Aid maintain a Howard presence and for more sidewalks near the Ellicott City Senior Center.

But Ulman faces an uncertain fiscal situation this spring.

The General Assembly could cut more state funding to counties, and revenues could continue declining.

Meanwhile, Howard County's Spending Affordability Committee is warning that it will be tough for Ulman to find enough money for his priorities -- such as adding dozens more police officers and boosting recycling collections.

The school board wants $118 million for capital projects and $661 million for operating expenses -- a 7.8 percent increase. That request includes 191 new employees and a 5 percent pay raise for teachers -- a contrast from Baltimore County, where teachers are to get no cost-of-living pay increase next year.

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