Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman is making an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" argument in his opposition to Question B, a proposed charter amendment that would tinker with the county's budget process. Given that Howard has a reputation for being a well managed county, there's something to be said for his reasoning. Ultimately, though, we believe the change voters are being asked to consider has little potential for harm and provides some flexibility in the budgeting process that could serve legitimate policy purposes.
Howard, like most Maryland counties, has an executive-driven budget process. Mr. Kittleman proposes spending, and the County Council's power to review his plan consists solely of deciding what, if anything, to cut. That dynamic is fundamentally sound, as it prevents micromanaging by the council and allows for clear lines of administrative authority. We wouldn't support a change to that basic structure, and this charter amendment doesn't do that.
What it does do is afford the council with two additional options for what to do with funds they cut from the budget. They could either go toward shoring up the county's pension system or they could be placed in a contingency reserve fund for the executive to use later in the budget year or in subsequent years with the council's approval. Right now all the council can do when it cuts the budget is to use the savings to restore any cuts the executive made to the school board's budget request or to cut property taxes by the amount of the reduction to the executive's proposal.
This spring's experience showcases the reason why the council might not always want to give more money to the school system. Mr. Kittleman increased school spending substantially this year, including full funding for teacher raises and special education programs. But he did not provide the full amount the school board requested — a whopping $65 million more than it received last year. Debate over the budget devolved into questions about the system's practices and transparency, with huge crowds showing up to public hearings to criticize the school board. The council ultimately chose not to send more funds to the system — a perfectly reasonable choice under the circumstances.
There are also legitimate reasons why the council might not want to cut the property tax. The magnitude of cuts that would likely stem from the council's reduction of the budget would be minuscule, and should the economy sour, they might require increases in future years. The point could be argued either way, but it's certainly not irrational to prefer stability in tax rates.
What would a contingency reserve accomplish? The charter amendment's chief sponsors, council members Jon Weinstein and Mary Kay Sigaty, point to cases in which the executive presents spending proposals that don't appear fully fleshed out. In an op-ed in the Howard County Times, they cited as an example funding in Mr. Kittleman's budget for improvements to the county's snow tracker, a worthwhile use of funds they said, but one for which the executive provided "little information, few details supporting the dollars requested or an anticipated timeline." If this amendment had been in place, the council could have placed the money in a contingent reserve fund so that the executive could come back for approval once the details were fleshed out. As it is, the council approved the expenditure. A similar dynamic played out with a new non-profit service center the county is funding. Details related to leases and other matters weren't complete by the time the council had to approve the budget, so the best the council could do is to require a briefing after the fact.
Mr. Kittleman has argued that Howard County's current budget process is in line with what the state and other Maryland counties do, but that's not quite true. The legislature can cut funds from the governor's proposed budget and allow them to accrue as unallocated reserves, or it can authorize the governor to use them for specific purposes if he so chooses. That's happened in each of the last two years. Sometimes Gov. Larry Hogan has decided to spend the money, and sometimes not. It's led to some strong exchanges of words but hardly the "train wreck" predicted by the lone dissenter on the Howard council if Question B passes. Baltimore County has for years allowed funds cut by the council to collect as unallocated reserves with no ill effects whatsoever.
This proposed change comes at a time when Howard has a Republican executive and a Democratic majority on the council, so some might be tempted to view it through a partisan lens. In truth, though, divided government has been working well in Ellicott City. The council passed both of Mr. Kittleman's first two budgets unanimously, and members effectively took his side in the dispute with the school system. In that context, Howard voters should see this ballot question for what it is: a minor tweak to provide some flexibility in the budget process. We recommend a vote in favor.