LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Howard Council Adopts $855 Million Budget

Council member Greg Fox, who voted against the budget, says he is worried about possible deficits.
Council member Greg Fox, who voted against the budget, says he is worried about possible deficits. (Preston Keres - Twp)
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By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008

The Howard County Council adopted a budget yesterday that is remarkable for what it does not do: The $855 million spending plan does not raise property or income tax rates as many counties have been forced to do amid a souring economy.

The balanced budget does not require spending cuts to County Executive Ken Ulman's initiatives on the environment, government office expansion and mass transit. It includes money for more police officers and school system employees, raises for county workers and funds for a program to give uninsured residents access to health care.

And the $421 million capital budget also approved yesterday will begin the funding for a $57.3 million renovation of Mount Hebron High School and a $22 million remodel of the county government complex in Ellicott City.

As sagging home sales and assessments have prompted many of the Washington region's governments to retrench, Howard has avoided much of the pain. That is partly because of its affluence: The county has the highest median household income in Maryland, estimated at $93,050 in 2006, and property tax collections are still increasing because a 5 percent annual cap on taxing the higher assessments spreads the revenue over several years.

Spending in the operating budget that will take effect July 1 rises slightly, by 5.16 percent, but property and income tax rates remain unchanged. The property tax rate is $1.014 for every $100 of assessed value, and the income tax rate is 3.2 percent.

Council member Greg Fox (Western County) was the sole vote on the five-member panel against the budget, as he was last year. Fox, the council's lone Republican, often had the support of Council Chairman Courtney Watson (D-Northeast County), but the three other Democrats voted as a bloc against his budget amendments.

"Two of the council members had disagreements with our focus on the environment, health care and our focus on neighborhood revitalization," Ulman (D) said. "That's okay. We feel we're making long-term investments for the benefit of the community."

Fox said he was reflecting concerns among budget watchers that the county could be in a deficit in a few years because of climbing financial obligations, particularly with the requirement that it must allot increasing amounts for retiree health-care benefits.

"We are getting into a tough situation," he said.

Fox and Watson, citing the sluggish economy, opposed a $50-a-household increase in annual trash collection fees and a $3 million appropriation to buy large residential recycling carts.

Watson also tried unsuccessfully to trim spending in the budget for a nature center and new transit buses because she wanted more money devoted to renovating older schools. Some schools, she said, need better alarm systems, sprinkler systems and other safety components.

"I just feel we could have done more," Watson said. The council agreed to shift $50,000 from its budget to the school system for renovations.

Ulman and the council forged several key compromises before yesterday's session. Ulman agreed not to sell 26 county-owned acres in Ellicott City to help pay for remodeling the nearby Howard government complex; Fox and Watson had opposed the sale.

Ulman's budget staff members also worked with the council to make up an unanticipated drop of $1.7 million in state school construction aid.

"We'll take every penny the council is willing to give us to help us do our job," School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said.


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