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Ulman proposes capital budget

The Baltimore Sun

Faced with a difficult revenue picture, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman yesterday proposed a capital budget funded with slightly less county taxpayers' money than last year.

The total request to the county council is for $421 million, up from $353.7 million requested last year. But county officials said $220 million is for general county projects funded by bonds and cash, about $8 million less than last year. The rest -- $200.6 million -- is for utility projects paid for by separate water and sewer taxes. Of the total, $80.5 million is for school projects.

Ulman is asking for authorization to sell $100 million in bonds to help pay for the projects.

The county council will hold a public hearing on the capital budget at 7 p.m. April 17 in the George Howard Building.

"We've had to make some tough decisions. We've had to defer a number of projects. But we're able to move forward with our core priorities," Ulman said.

Those core projects include $27 million set aside toward the renovation of Mount Hebron High School, $7.7 million to start work on a larger county library and historical center to replace the Miller Library in Ellicott City, $2.9 million for a fire station at the intersection of routes 100 and 103, $9.5 million for the Robinson Nature Center in West Columbia, and $18.7 million for the North Laurel Community Center and surrounding park.

An additional $16.9 million, including $9 million in local funding, would pay for renovations of the Student Services/Clark library building at Howard Community College. There is no money, however, for a parking garage or a new health sciences building the college wants.

College president Kate Hetherington said the renovation project is "our No. 1 priority this year," since it is the oldest building on campus. The other requests can wait until next year, she said.

If the county council agrees, Ulman also wants to buy office space in a proposed Oakland Mills building and begin renovations to the George Howard building by late summer, forcing the temporary relocation of county government to leased office space.

Deferred, Ulman said, were plans to renovate the old Cedar Lane School in west Columbia into a shared school/community building, $12 million for a school system warehouse, a replacement fire station along Little Patuxent Parkway, and major renovations to Gateway and Dorsey buildings.

Ulman put $27 million into a contingency fund pending agreement on the plan for the Mount Hebron High School renovation, now estimated at $57 million .

That drew approvals from school officials and Cindy Ardinger, a leader of the Help Mount Hebron group.

"I think he made the right decision," she said, although some dissatisfied residents asked Ulman last month to delay the project.

"My understanding is that if we're not totally in line with the community's concerns, we're extremely close," said Frank Aquino, school board chairman.

The school board is to get a presentation on Mount Hebron at its April 10 meeting.

Aquino and Ray Brown, county schools' chief operating officer, said they had no complaints about Ulman's budget proposal.

County budget director Ray Wacks said the county collected $30 million in real estate transfer tax last year and budgeted for $2 million less this fiscal year. So far, however, projections are down an additional $6 million below projections.

County council chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said her district is getting a lot in this budget. The new Miller library, fire station, and additions at Elkridge and Northfield elementary schools are in her district. Renovations are also planned at Waterloo and Clemens Crossing Elementary schools, in other districts.

"It's long overdue, I think," she said.

Ulman's plan to buy $4 million worth of office space in the proposed Meridian Square office building in Oakland Mills, renovate the George Howard building and sell two undeveloped tracts the county owns in Ellicott City are likely to produce a fight among council members.

"We still don't have the details on what the plans are" for the projects, said councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican.

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