Appeals pour in despite paucity

The Baltimore Sun

Though government revenues are sliding, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman was urged to spend money for everything from education to skateboard parks in his next budget by members of a standing-room-only crowd at his annual hearing.

"The fact is, we are in the worst economic crisis that most of us have lived through. We're going to have some tough times," Ulman told the crowd Thursday night. County revenues could drop, depending on state aid and income tax returns, and Ulman said he has asked department heads to prepare two budgets for next fiscal year - one flat and one with a 5 percent reduction.

But no one was there to ask for less spending.

Requests for food stamps, cash assistance, eviction prevention, utility bill assistance, subsidized housing and free or reduced-price school lunches are all up significantly this year, said Harry Schwarz, treasurer of the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for 130 human services groups.

"While we understand the bleak economic picture will continue for at least a while, we also believe that it is a community's responsibility to support the most vulnerable of our residents," Schwarz told Ulman.

More than half of the crowd came for Howard Community College, where President Kate Hetherington said enrollment has increased 53.7 percent in eight years and keeps rising.

Julie Drabenstadt of Savage said her 3-year-old daughter, Jenna, reads at a second-grade level, thanks to the county library system.

Daniel Crowe, 13, of Woodbine pitched the idea of a concrete skate park in Western Regional Park, and Joel Goodman of Clarksville said the Howard Astronomical League will pay for an observatory in Alpha Ridge Park if the county helps with planning and site development.

"If you don't get children interested in science by age 10, it is difficult," he warned.

Judy Fisher George of North Laurel and Janis Markopoulos of Savage said their neighborhoods need more police protection, a bigger Savage fire station and a skateboard park, too.

Lourdes Sullivan of Savage echoed that.

"I want to give young men a place to break their necks where I will not run over them with my car," she said to laughter. A skateboard facility in the new North Laurel Regional Park would be $140,000 well spent, she said.

Although Ulman has said the county has made enough budget cuts and set aside enough cash to get through this fiscal year, the next one, starting July 1, is another story.

A new round of state revenue estimates last week revealed income and other tax receipts falling precipitously. A $1.9 billion state shortfall is forecast for fiscal year 2010, and that could mean sharp cuts in aid to local governments, especially for education.

In a worst-case scenario, the state could stop paying for teacher pensions, which would cost Howard $54.4 million a year, according to estimates from the Maryland Association of Counties.

At the same time, Howard is trying to finance renovations to aging county schools, and build libraries, community centers and parks, while also renovating the George Howard government office building in Ellicott City.

Despite the economic woes, advocates for a 50-meter indoor swimming facility in the county e-mailed early budget testimony advocating their cause days before the hearing.

Tina Wumer of Ellicott City, for example, said the pool would be great for her three children, ages 10, 12 and 14. Before coming to Maryland six years ago, she said the children had such a pool to use in Ohio.

"We were a little surprised when we moved here not to find something comparable," she said, and although her family has joined the community pool in Waverly Woods, where she lives, it is far too small for competitive swimming.

Sharon Lewandowski of West Friendship asked for "a token amount of seed money" in the fiscal 2010 capital budget for planning or site preparation.

Others have complained that no Howard high schools have indoor swimming pools, keeping swimming from being a high school sport.

But at least one person dissented.

Steven Harbin of Woodbine is opposed to spending county funds on the pool.

"No one is against competitive swimming in high schools, but that does not mean that we should spend tens of millions of dollars to make it happen," he said.

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