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Despite financial uncertainty, many requests at Kittleman budget hearing

Howard County Executive @akittleman held his first budget hearing Wednesday

Just a week after Howard County announced a $14 million revenue shortfall in its current budget, public discussion of next year's budget began with County Executive Allan Kittleman's first budget hearing Wednesday night.

Kittleman cautioned that the county would likely have to do some belt-tightening in fiscal year 2016, which runs from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016.

"We've been told that our revenues for next year aren't exactly what we anticipated," he said.

Kittleman has already instructed county department heads to cut their spending by 5 percent for the rest of fiscal year 2015 to make up for the current budget deficit, which was created by lower-than-expected revenues from this year's income and recordation taxes. By charter, the county is required to have a balanced budget.

Kittleman's hearing is the first step in a months-long process that includes input from the Planning Board and a vote from the County Council before both the capital and operating budgets are finalized next spring.

The county executive, flanked by the county's Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins and Kittleman Chief of Staff Diane Wilson, heard budget requests from institutions and suggestions from individuals from across the county Wednesday. In all, 46 people testified.

Though the evening was framed by Kittleman's call for financial prudence, many groups asked for continued support – and some asked for extra funds.

Valerie Gross, CEO of Howard County Public Libraries, said the system would be requesting additional funding in fiscal year 2016 for curriculum needs.

"While we recognize the potential budgetary challenges that you may be facing, our budget represents less than 2 percent of the county's overall budget; a smart investment for a major return," Gross said. The library, which last year received $22.3 million in funding from the county, was named Library of the Year by Library Journal in 2013 and is often touted as one of the county's biggest assets.

Representatives from another of the county's often-cited top assets, the school system, asked Kittleman for continuing support. Last year, the school board received a record $530.4 million.

"A challenging economic climate does not lessen our commitment to our students and schools," said school board chair Janet Siddiqui. "We must strive to protect the gains we have achieved over the past several years."

Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Renee Foose said the school system needed to support the "growing proportion" of students "who face poverty and other daunting challenges to learning." School system enrollment is projected to grow by more than 1,600 students next year, Foose said.

Howard Community College President Kathleen Hetherington also pointed to a rapidly expanding student body at the county's institution for higher education. She requested funding to complete a new science, engineering and technology building for the school, which recently broke ground, as well as funds for additional parking.

In Ellicott City, which was just designated a Main Street Maryland community by the state – opening up the possibility for state and federal grant opportunities – Ellicott City Partnership President Andy Hall asked for $75,000 to go towards administrative costs and redesigning the website.

Shawn Gladden, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society, which operates a museum in the old town, said county funds could help the museum repair its roof and hire full-time manager so that the museum could open seven days a week starting next September.

Multiple people came to urge Kittleman to work on resolving historic Ellicott City's flooding issues, which have threatened the old town's infrastructure.

"We need to make sure that our county jewel is not washed into the river," said Tom Coale, who this year ran to represent the historic district as a delegate in Annapolis but lost his bid to Republican delegate-elect Bob Flanagan. Both Coale and Flanagan had prioritized flood mitigation during the campaign.

"I don't want our time to be defined by Ellicott City being ruined by the next hundred-year flood," Coale said. "This is money you're going to end up spending anyway," whether now or in culvert and flood wall repairs later, he added.

Lori Lilly, who has worked on flood mitigation in Ellicott City for years, asked Kittleman to take steps right away to form a work group focused on flooding and to begin a stream monitoring program.

She and others asked Kittleman to consider what they said were the advantages of the county's Watershed Restoration and Protection fee, called a rain tax by critics, which Kittleman has said he would like to see repealed.

"Just like drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities, stormwater facilities have tremendous infrastructure that needs to be maintained," Lilly said.

Residents from two Columbia villages also came to ask Kittleman for help in revitalizing their communities.

Virginia Thomas, a member of the Oakland Mills Village Board, pitched the idea of creating a sports complex in her community, citing the need for a 50-meter swimming pool and full-service ice rink in the county.

"We need you to say you really believe in Oakland Mills, you believe in the idea of reinventing older communities," she said. "There's no way we can do this without you helping us."

Russ Swatek, a Columbia Association board member from Long Reach, also asked Kittleman not to forget his village center, which is slated for redevelopment as a hub for the arts.

Fred Gottemoeller, a member of Bridge Columbia, a group advocating for an upgraded footbridge connecting east and west Columbia across Route 29, asked Kittleman for funding to pay for a design for the bridge, which the group hopes could be used by pedestrians, bikers and, potentially, buses.

"If we're successful in this, Howard County will have a first building block for a sustainable transportation system," he said.

Other testimony focused on support for expanding the county's biking infrastructure, funding for several nonprofits and requests for new amenities in the Savage and Elkridge communities.

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