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Ulman to reveal budget fix

Legislation to solve a projected $20 million revenue shortfall is coming Thursday, the same day Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is to present his budget for next fiscal year, according to county officials.

County budget director Raymond S. Wacks did not reveal how Ulman intends to eliminate the shortfall by June 30, the end of the fiscal year, telling County Council members Monday only that final details haven't been determined. He did have another glimmer of good tidings, however.

"I have good news in that I have no worse news," he said.

Ulman said later that the revenue gap would be "a combination of other sources and mid-year savings" from things such as surplus funds in various departments, frozen job vacancies and postponed or cancelled spending.

"We haven't figured it all out yet, " Wacks told the council.

"We're really cobbling it together from a lot of different sources," Ulman said. One of those sources is likely to be the school board, though that is not certain. Ulman said he's been having "very good, positive" discussions with the board on that issue. The county also has a $47.5 million Rainy Day Fund, though Ulman has been reluctant to use it.

Just one month ago, Wacks told the council that the combination of February's huge snowstorms and declining income tax revenues had boosted the revenue gap from $13 million to $20 million. Monday, he said things aren't getting any easier, though the bottom may have come and gone.

"This past winter was about the worst," he said, telling council members that the next round of property assessments covering the western and southern third of the county is expected to produce more large reductions in home values. Still, homeowners who have lived in the same place for 10 years or more will again see property tax increases, since they have benefitted from the county's 5 percent assessment growth cap for all that time. The cap limits the amount of increased home value that can be taxed to 5 percent per year.

Also, council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she wants to reduce the cost of the annual catered delicatessen-style lunch offered employees after the budget bills are voted on May 19. "We're going to scale back the budget lunch given the fiscal condition of the county," she said. Last year's lunch cost $1,011, according to council administrator Stephen LeGendre.

The council also got a detailed briefing on the $20 million renovation of the county government office complex in Ellicott City, which is scheduled to be complete by August. County offices moved to Columbia in November 2008, but should all be back in the George Howard building complex by Labor Day, according to several officials of the private firms who designed the renovation — the first since the building was constructed in 1976.

The Howard building will have solar panels on the roof, rain cisterns under the front plaza to collect water for irrigating plants, new energy-efficient windows, lights, plumbing, air handling and electrical systems.

"It will be a healthy environment for all employees," said Maria D. Demma, a designer and project manager for Arris Design Studio Inc.

Alex J. Kramer, her boss, said the building had been opened up by knocking down walls and outfitted with attractive new finishes. A large new meeting room will be near the security desk at the enlarged entrance. Walls were demolished to allow in more light, and the main hallway to the left of the entrance vestibule will be more functional with public service counters lining it. The council chamber is being renovated but will remain where it was, though the County Council's offices have expanded, he said.

One side of the building will have "warm" colors of yellow, soft orange and reds, while the other will have "cool" colors from the blue/green palette. Planning and Zoning and Inspections Licenses and Permits, plus cashiers who deal with the public, will occupy the first floor.

Although space is limited, Kramer said there will be a small exercise room for employees, a larger cafe and lunchroom, and more attractive public spaces.

"One thing we can't change about the building is the brown brick," he said, but the various design colors were chosen to complement the brick walls. The lifespan of the improvements is 30 to 50 years, the designers said in answer to a question from councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat.

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