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Because most votes the Howard County Council casts are unanimous, the political views of its five members are not often on display.

But every May, when the council meets to adopt the county budget, the partisan divide between the council's four Democrats and Fulton Republican Greg Fox is crystal clear.

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On Thursday, May 31, the council cast its sixth straight 4-1 partisan vote on the budget — one for every year Fox and the four Democrats have made up the council.

The main point of contention this year was County Executive Ken Ulman's proposal to raise the fire tax to a countywide rate of 17.6 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Fox vehemently opposed the increase, and in what he touted as a "compromise," proposed a lower increase to a rate of 14.3 cents. Since 2007, the fire tax rate has been 11.6 cents for residents in the rural west and 13.6 cents for residents in the east.

Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball questioned why he and the other council members should support Fox's proposal.

"In 2007, you put forward an amendment to do almost exactly what you're suggesting now, to raise the fire tax by what you said was a lesser amount, as a compromise, and then voted against the budget once your compromise was supported," he said.

Ball then went on to name some of the reasons Fox has given in the past five years for voting against the budget: the $500,000 funding for Healthy Howard; a lack of dollars put into the Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) fund, which is to pay for county employees' future retirement costs; concerns about adequate funding for new positions.

"At the heart of each of these (reasons) what I thought I heard was your support for predictability and planning," Ball said. "And so I find it interesting that now that we're going to put forward 41 additional positions, 32 of which will be staffing the soon-to-be-completed Glenwood fire station, that ... what you want to do is have an increase that you know will be insufficient to actually support funding these new positions in out years."

Fox told Ball that if he were to vote for his amendment to limit the fire tax increase, he would vote for the budget this year.

"For half a decade you haven't voted for a county budget for various issues that you say have not been addressed," Ball said. "But now you'll be willing to vote for the county budget with all those issues still outstanding if we raise the fire tax to 14.25 cents?"

Fox responded: "I would be willing to compromise for the sake of the citizens."

Fox also sparred with the other three Democrats over the merits and intentions of his proposal. Ultimately, the four voted against Fox's amendment and Fox voted against the budget.

In casting his vote, Fox noted the $15 million sitting in the fire tax contingency fund and the $5 million sitting in the environmental services contingency fund — both higher than 3 percent of expenses, the standard the general fund is held to by law. He also noted a $2,000 cut from the Howard County Autism Society and "while we are starting to make a dent in OPEB, (we're) still not getting there.

"I still cannot vote for the expense budget," Fox concluded. "We're taking right now over $20 million out of Howard County taxpayers and we're moving those dollars from the economy. The whole thing passes the level of absurdity."

In an earlier interview with the Howard County Times, Fox said while he was likely to vote against the fire tax increase, he might vote for the main budget bill if it included additional funds for speed humps in the capital budget and the $2,000 restored to the autism society in the operating budget. No such amendments were filed.

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Asked whether he was frustrated that Fox has consistently voted against his budget proposals, Ulman said no.

"I think it clarifies the fundamental difference in belief in what the purpose of local government is," he said.

After the budget bickering every year, the council members always note that they plan to leave the disagreement behind and resume their normally cooperative relationship.

"We pride ourselves on this body on avoiding the kind of political dysfunction that we see on the state and national level," council member Courtney Watson said during the May 31 budget vote. "And I certainly do not hold anything Mr. Fox said against him."

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