Disagreement over saving county $220,000 sparks a fiery exchange

The Baltimore Sun

Given that Howard County's general fund budget totals $854 million, a potential $220,000 savings may seem tiny.

But amid the current economic downturn, it's enough to spark a dispute between County Executive Ken Ulman's administration and the county's state legislators at last week's delegation public hearing.

County budget director Raymond S. Wacks says it's the kind of fight that could become more common as falling revenues increase the pressure to find any savings, no matter how small.

At one point, the disagreement produced an unusual exchange - Wacks lecturing conservative Republican Del. Warren E. Miller on the value of small savings.

"What percentage of the county budget is $220,000?" Miller asked.

Wacks replied that it was negligible.

"We're headed into proverbial lean times, not just for a year or two," he said. "These small pieces add up."

Ulman wants his planners to start doing work the county pays a separate, independent agency to do. Instead of the Howard County Soil Conservation District in Woodbine reviewing grading and sediment control plans for developers, Ulman says existing county workers can do it, a projected savings of $220,000.

But that would mean two layoffs in the soil conservation agency, which has done the work since 1974, and leaders there are rallying their troops to fend off what district manager Bob Ensor called "a hostile takeover" at Wednesday night's hearing.

Ensor characterized the cut as a power grab and a "removal of dissent," and he got support from the Patuxent River Commission, county farmers and residents who back the agency's nonpartisan work.

Wacks, county lobbyist Ned Cheston, and Tom Butler, deputy director of planning and zoning, said the county has the qualified employees to do the work.

Despite that, Miller said he's firmly opposed, while Del. Gail H. Bates, a fellow Republican, said she has unanswered questions.

"This was done hastily," she told Wacks, asking why it hadn't come up earlier.

Wacks said he's scoured the budget anew because of the fiscal crisis.

"They told us not to bring them any increases in taxes or fees, but in effect, that's what they're doing" if the bill dies, Wacks said after the hearing.

Some Democrats had their doubts too.

"Why is this so important? What's the big deal?" Del. Elizabeth Bobo wanted to know.

Said Del. Frank S. Turner, "I think this bill has statewide impact. I have trouble understanding why we're discussing this bill."

Senate delegation chairman James N. Robey disagreed, but noted later that the soil conservation bill is in trouble.

"There was a tremendous amount of resistance," the Democrat said. "They don't seem satisfied that saving $220,000 is worth it."

Maryland's 24 soil conservation district offices date to the Great Depression, when the independent agencies were created to help farmers prevent the kind of severe erosion that led to dust storms in the Midwest, and learn better farming practices. Ensor said it is still the bulk of what the 11-employee-office does.

Ensor, Miller and others suggested an unknown motive might be behind the request, not a desire to save money.

"I don't believe it for a minute," Miller said the next day, declaring he'll vote against the bill.

Still, Elizabeth Riordan, a resident who attended the meeting, asked an interesting question.

"If $220,000 is such a small amount, how much does it take to be a large amount?" she said.

No answer was offered.

More bills

In Annapolis earlier Wednesday, the delegation met and plowed through votes to approve eight other bills designed to only apply in Howard. The delegation's approval is normally all a bill needs to win enactment by the full General Assembly as a courtesy, though not always.

Robey's bill allowing use of speed cameras to impose fines is a good example. His local bill allowing speed-camera use on county roads was approved by the delegation last year, but Robey withdrew it in favor of a statewide bill backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley. Then O'Malley's bill died in the Senate in the session's last days.

This year, the former county executive and county police chief is determined to push his own bill, which may get a final delegation vote Wednesday. But Del. James E. Malone Jr., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Motor Vehicles and Transportation, warned that General Assembly leadership does not want to see a spate of local speed-camera bills.

"Our goal is to have one statewide bill," he told Robey at the morning delegation meeting.

Robey said he'd want that too, but this year he's taking no chances.

"I'd prefer us to vote on our bill."

Five requests for state bond money were approved without opposition or debate, and the delegation also approved a bill prohibiting panhandling for cash on state highway right-of-way. A controversial provision including advertising in the ban was removed.

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