Ulman leaves little to cut in lean budget

With no proposed tax rate increases, unpaid furloughs and no pay raises for county workers, the Howard County Council might find little to cut from County Executive Ken Ulman's fourth budget, which could leave the Healthy Howard health access program as a point of contention again.

Ulman's $1.44 billion budget, which includes $824.4 million in locally raised revenue, would still make most homeowners pay more in property tax and Baltimore City water charges, however, and also includes $500,000 for the health access plan for uninsured county residents that has drawn fire from Republican Councilman Greg Fox.

"They have not met any of the goals they stated, and restated and restated," Fox said. He speculated that current participants can get most of the services they receive without the Healthy Howard plan.

Ulman defended the program as needed since the new federal health care law requires everyone to have health insurance by 2014.

"My job is to provide …for people in need," the executive said, which includes food, shelter and health care. "The good thing is we're talking about a three-year bridge" to the federal plan. Dropping the program now would put hundreds of people in peril, he said. Ulman also proposed a $60,000 emergency aid fund for people in crisis, $20,000 more than he provided last year. That money was divided between the Community Action Council and Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

At the same time, he would cut back on Howard Transit bus service, although he is an advocate of mass transit. Fares would increase from $1.50 to $2, and Sunday service and service to River Hill village would be eliminated, along with two express lines. Ulman said he is proposing the same $7.7 million in county funding for the bus service as the county paid this year, but operating costs are rising too much.

"Costs have gone up dramatically," he said, requiring $2.2 million more to maintain current fares and service. "The bottom line is, we cannot sustain 20, 30 or 40 percent increases in transportation year over year." The service cuts are to the most lightly used lines, he said.

Carol Filipczak, chair of the county's transportation board, said she is "disappointed that he's cutting to that degree." With federal jobs coming, and downtown Columbia to be redeveloped, now is the time to increase the number of public transit riders, she said.

But Sharonlee Vogel, chair of a private group called Transportation Advocates, said Ulman is at least preserving the core of the transit system. "You get to the point where you don't have any choice," she said.

Ulman's fiscal 2011 proposal would give county workers no cost-of-living pay raise, would take back longevity increases via a four-day unpaid furlough while county offices are closed between Christmas and New Year's, and leave 197 unfilled jobs vacant. Department heads would lose five days of pay, and elected officials are expected to give back a week's salary to the county. In addition, the county is adding $6 million to the rainy-day fund for emergencies. Not counting required increases for this year's elections and school spending, Ulman said general fund spending is down 3.2 percent, or $8.75 million in this budget.

Ulman said he is proud of relations with the school board that led the panel to give the county back $3.9 million in savings over the year to help fund the fiscal 2011 school budget. The county and school officials combined efforts to economize on health insurance, property maintenance, vehicle operations and technology that resulted in savings that don't affect classroom instruction. That give-back meant Ulman did not have to request a waiver from the state's maintenance-of-effort law.

"We made the call that it is better for everybody," he said about the agreement with the school board. "Let's solve our problems internally," instead of publicly squabbling.

Meanwhile, Ulman and budget director Raymond S. Wacks found $19.6 million in savings and unspent funds with which to close a looming revenue gap for fiscal 2010, which ends June 30. Savings from unused road resurfacing accounts for $6 million of that, while $4.1 million comes from mid-year spending reductions and $2.4 million from a defunct capital project. Despite all that, the county's emergency Rainy Day Fund was not touched, and the $6 million being added will bring it to $54 million.

The County Council has until June 1 to review the budget and make changes. A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, April 26, at school board headquarters. Education, community college and library capital and operating budgets will be the subject of a May 1 public hearing, starting at 8:30 a.m.

Although no tax rates would go up, homeowners will pay 9 percent more for public water bought from Baltimore City, and Howard's 5 percent assessment cap means that 80 percent of homeowners will pay more property tax. That means $127 to $228 more tax paid by owners of homes ranging from $250,000 to $450,000 in value. Since the annual cap limits the increase in home value that can be taxed, long-term residents are still catching up with price increases from earlier in the decade.

Council chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she is "pleased" about the school board working with the county, but said she hasn't had time to study the budget. East Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball called it "a reasonable budget," at first glance.

County councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, had what Ulman said was a common first blush reaction to his proposal.

"It's not nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be," she said.


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