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Deficit worry dogs budget talks

The Baltimore Sun

As they debate a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1, some Howard County Council members are more worried about potential red ink in the county's future.

That concern could set the stage for attempts to cut County Executive Ken Ulman's pending $1.4 billion proposal, as the council closes in on final budget votes scheduled for May 22. If members want to make changes, they must be submitted by late this week.

Cuts made now to the fiscal 2009 budget could lessen spending increases required for fiscal 2010.

Even a 3 percent cost-of-living pay raise for county workers in fiscal 2010 would produce an $8 million deficit based on current revenue estimates, council Chairwoman Courtney Watson told county budget director Raymond S. Wacks during a discussion yesterday in the George Howard building.

That could grow to $15.1 million by fiscal 2012, according to figures from the council's auditor Haskell Arnold.

"Next year [fiscal 2010] would be a pretty tough year," said Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat. "I guess I'm uncomfortable knowing we're going into a difficult situation next year if we give a COLA."

Watson and Fulton Republican Greg Fox tried to pin Wacks down on his expectations beyond fiscal 2009, but he defended Ulman's budget and said he's comfortable with it, pending new information. Both pointed to the same concerns raised by members of this year's Spending Affordability Committee, who also warned of looming revenue shortfalls.

"What concerns me is the increased spending, new jobs and new initiatives," Fox said.

"We're setting ourselves up for a structural deficit," he said, worrying aloud about funding demands for things like the Healthy Howard health access plan and the $3 million purchase of recycling bins.

But Wacks said that although some "tough decisions" may be looming beyond fiscal 2009, Ulman's government does not face a situation it cannot control.

"We're not making any commitments for the future on these programs. We put together what we believe is a tight budget," he said, in which education and 22 added police officers are the main new expenses.

"It's going to be tight for a couple of years," Wacks said of revenues, explaining that no one knows if the national economy will soon begin a recovery, or get worse. Income tax receipts in particular can be volatile, but Howard County's economy is strong and should recover more quickly, he said.

"I am comfortable with this budget," he said.

Later, Ulman said he shares the council members' concerns.

"That's why this budget reflects the second smallest [spending] increase in a decade," he said.

Friday, during the council's review of the school system's budget request, Fox made a bid to stop Ulman's plan to spend $3 million in surplus funds to buy large wheeled recycling bins for every county resident who wants one.

Fox asked the assembled school officials how they would feel if the council rejected the "plastic bins" and shifted funds around to give half the savings back to the schools, and return half to county taxpayers. He did not reveal specifics on how he would do that.

"I'm just curious about your views on plastic bins," he said, noting that Ulman cut $4 million from the Board of Education's request.

School board members and Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin didn't reply directly, but earlier had presented the council with a list of potential budget cuts - for such things as maintenance and extra textbooks - to match Ulman's reduction.

"The idea was to have the least impact in the classrooms," Cousin said.

Wacks immediately objected to Fox's idea.

"None of the $3 million [for recycling bins] is coming from general funds," he said. Since the money is surplus, it can only be used for one-time purposes under county law.

Watson also appeared to be interested in Fox's cut, while Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, both Democrats, did not. That means West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty could be the key vote on the issue.

The council also took a straw vote in which four members approved of the $57.3 million renovation plan for Mount Hebron High School. Terrasa, a Kings Contrivance Democrat, said she is uncommitted on the idea.

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