Since Gov. Martin O'Malleyreleased his budget proposal in January, complete with a plan to shift $240 million in teacher pension costs to the counties, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman has been telling anyone who will listen how the county's $17 million portion will be a "crippling blow" to his budget.
Ulman, flanked by several top county officials, held a "Stop the Shift" rally March 1 at the Harper's Choice Village Center, in Columbia, to detail some of the cuts that could come from his budget if the teacher pension shift happens as proposed.
Those cuts include: more than 50 police officers; the July 4 celebration and fireworks celebration in downtown Columbia; select bus services; and, reduced hours at county libraries, community centers and senior centers.
"This is real," Ulman said. "What's being discussed in Annapolis is absolutely going to have real impact, not only on Howard County, but on communities across the state."
Ulman said the counties already have taken enough of a hit from the state throughout the recession. In 2007 when Ulman prepared his first budget as county executive, Howard County received $30 million in state aide. Last year, state aide to Howard was down to $4 million.
"I guess the state couldn't keep cutting aid because there's not much left, so they decided to send us a bill" for teacher pensions, Ulman said.
The General Assembly will vote on O'Malley's budget before the session concludes April 9. Ulman has to submit his fiscal year 2013 operating budget to the County Council by April 21.
Police Chief Bill McMahon detailed potential cuts to his department that would come if the shift occurs: the roughly 50 police officers that have been added to the force since Ulman took office in 2006; community resource officers and the police satellite offices they staff in various Columbia village centers; 18 high school and middle school resource officers; the senior liaison officer; the multicultural officer; and other police staff that assist residents who speak foreign languages.
"The changes are going to be dramatic," McMahon said. "These are very tangible, very real cuts that will have an impact on the community."
While the police department still will have enough officers to respond to calls, he said "we wouldn't be able to do many of the proactive things." It is those proactive things, McMahon said, that have led to a 24 percent reduction in robberies over the last six years, as well as other drops in crime statistics.
Other county departments could lose staff as well. Ulman asked all his department heads to submit alternative plans to reduce their budget requests by 7 percent.
"Everybody's proposed budget to me included layoffs," Ulman said.
No more fireworks
Four years ago the county picked up the bill for the annual fireworks and July 4 celebration held at Lake Kittamaqundi after the Kiwanis Club of Columbia decided it could no longer afford the expense. This year, if the teacher pension shift passes through the General Assembly as proposed, Ulman said the county will not be able to pay for the show.
Funding for the fireworks is among the slightly more than $1 million the Department of Recreation and Parks would have to cut from its budget if the shift happens.
"That's a significant cut for us," Recreation and Parks director John Byrd said. "We'll be reducing hours at community centers, our new nature center."
He added: "We probably won't open Roger Carter pool (the only county-run aquatic facility) this season."
Byrd also noted that maintenance for county parks and athletic fields will likely be deferred.
Howard County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said the council is united behind the Stop the Shift movement.
"It will impact the poor in our community more than anyone because so many of the services we fund through Howard County government go to those in need," she said.
Sigaty testified on behalf of the council before the Senate Budget and Tax Committee Wednesday and was scheduled to testify before the House Appropriations Committee Thursday. Ulman also was scheduled to testify against the teacher pension shift Thursday.
Budgets for the school system and Howard Community College cannot be cut because of state-mandated maintenance of effort requirements. However, some of the discussion in Annapolis regarding the teacher pension shift includes looking at ways to waive the requirements so the teacher pension costs can be paid for out of local education budgets.
Superintendent Sydney Cousin said in his 45 years as an educator "never, ever has this type of imposition been imposed on the school system."
If the $16 million cost of public school teacher pensions (the other $1 million comes from the community college) has to be funded by the Board of Education, Cousin said that could mean cutting 225 teaching positions, transportation for 32,400 students, as well as select athletic and preschool programs.
Howard County Board of Education Chairwoman Sandra French said board members are united it their opposition against the shift.
"Why pit a state problem, a state governance issue, and put it on the locals for us to solve," French said.
The Board of Education has not made any decisions regarding potential cuts. Contingency plans will be discussed at the board meeting March 8, French said, but no final decisions would be made until May.