After listening to 169 witnesses in 12 hours of budget hearings, enduring 26 hours of work sessions plus yesterday's two-hour voting session, the Howard County Council approved county executive Ken Ulman's fiscal 2009 spending plan 4-1, with a minimum of changes.
"It's a real relief to be at this point," council member Mary Kay Sigaty said after the voting ended on 27 bills and resolutions, plus innumerable amendments. Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, was the "no" vote, saying that the plan to buy a floor of a proposed Meridian Square office building in Oakland Mills made him oppose the budget.
"I support 90 percent of the projects," he said.
"I'm really proud of the budget," said Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who supported Ulman's ideas.
In the end, Fox and council chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, were unable to attract a third vote to cut money for recycling bins, reduce the increase in the trash fee, cut spending on the Robinson Nature Center, codify enrollment limits for the Healthy Howard health access plan, or to block the Oakland Mills purchase.
"I'm very pleased. We thought our budget passed intact because every amendment that passed is one we worked with the council on," Ulman said after the session.
Watson added that she was happy with what she got. Ulman dropped plans to sell a 26-acre county-owned lot behind the District Court building in Ellicott City, and an unpopular attempt to allow a developer to extend a sewer line through a small, wooded lot in a residential neighborhood in Ellicott City. In addition, the council agreed with her suggestion to cut the council's own budget by $50,000 and give the money to the school board for systemic renovations, and to limit increased parking meter fines to $25 on Main Street in Ellicott City to help tourism. The fine for violating handicapped parking will go from $150 to $360, however, to compensate.
Watson voted with Fox on a long list of amendments that lost by 3-2 margins, but she said later that didn't bother her.
"I'm not uncomfortable with my position because I feel they represent the citizens in my district," she said.
She and Fox said they are worried about the potential for revenue shortfalls in the struggling national economy, and they sought spending cuts to help compensate.
Although Fox voted against the final budget bill, he said "I do feel that change was effected" through Sigaty's negotiations with Ulman over the Meridian Square purchase. In addition, he said, "civility still prevailed here."
East Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball called it a "stressful and challenging process," but said that the county is ready to begin negotiating a contract of sale for Meridian Square, and that should help the developer attract other buyers.
Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat, supported Ulman's initiatives on recycling, the environment and on county purchase of one floor of the Meridian Square office building in Oakland Mills, but as the key swing vote, she extracted concessions from Ulman on that issue.
The executive, who sees the proposed four-story mixed-use building as a key boost to revitalizing the village center, agreed not to sign a purchase contract until at least 45 percent of the building is sold or leased to long-term tenants. He also agreed that the county would not pay more for the space than any other buyer, and to overhaul county parking regulations - a contentious point for several council members.
County taxpayers will pay more in property taxes because of rising state assessments, though property and income tax rates won't change. They'll also pay $50 a year more for trash and recycling services ($35 more in the western county), higher parking fines and water and sewer fees. Those increases will pay for expanding the county police by 24 positions, hiring 190 more school employees, purchasing 14 hybrid Howard Transit buses and starting the Healthy Howard health access plan for uninsured residents. The county is also setting aside $15 million for future retiree health benefits - a $477 million and growing liability.
Overall, county spending for the $1.4 billion operating budget is up 7.9 percent, lower than last year's 10.7 percent. Spending climbed a more modest 5.6 percent in the general fund operating budget, which consists of the $855 million of the budget supplied by county taxpayers, the second lowest increase in the last decade. Both property and income tax rates will remain unchanged, meaning higher tax bills for homeowners because of rising state assessments.
Pay raises of 5 percent for county teachers and police, six percent for county firefighters and 3 percent for other employees account for about $34.3 million in new spending. The capital budget for fiscal 2009 totals $421 million; including $27 million to begin renovations at Mount Hebron High School, part of an $80.5 million school construction component, plus $16.9 million for Howard Community College projects. Also included is $18.7 million for the proposed North Laurel park and community center, and $7.7 million to begin work on an expanded Miller Library and Historical Center in Ellicott City.
The new budgets take effect July 1.