The Howard County Council is poised to approve a budget that holds the line on taxes while giving pay raises to teachers and county employees in the next fiscal year.
Although budget deliberations were rancorous last year, the County Council is scheduled to approve the $968 million budget for fiscal 2005 tomorrow without much debate or dissension.
"I would be very surprised if the vote for the budget wasn't unanimous," said council member Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County).
County leaders have struggled over the past several years to deal with stagnant revenues, but officials say next year's budget signals the county is starting to regain its financial footing.
Although a few changes could be made before its approval, county officials say the budget will include a 9.5 percent increase in spending. Much of the increase would go toward paying the interest on bonds that have been used to build new schools.
The budget does not raise income or property taxes, but it increases the monthly 911 fee by 15 cents, to 65 cents. The higher fee, which is added onto phone bills, would allow the county to hire eight additional 911 operators and supervisors.
Besides giving county employees a 2 percent raise and school teachers a 6 percent pay increase, Robey's budget creates new positions at the county public library system and in the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Democratic council members say their job was much easier this year because Robey successfully pushed for a 30 percent increase in the local income tax last year. Last year's tax increase, which the Democratic-controlled council approved in a 3 to 2 party-line vote, generated an additional $40 million for the 2005 budget.
"We made the tough decisions last year," council Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) said. "We dealt with our structural, long-term problems, and we should be good now."
Kittleman and council member Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County) say they believe last year's tax increase was not necessary and are urging voters to support a proposed ballot measure that would require that future tax increases win the support of two-thirds of the council.
But Guzzone cautioned that the prospect of brighter budget forecasts could be dashed if Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) decides to close a budget shortfall by cutting aid to local government.
Uncertainty over future budgets was one reason Robey instructed the school board to shave nearly $12 million from its 2005 operating budget.
Last Thursday, the school made the cuts before giving final approval to its operating budget.
Much of the money the board trimmed at the meeting came from accounting maneuvers and revised school enrollment projections: About $2.75 million for computer equipment and contracted building repairs was moved to the schools' capital budget. Roughly $1.4 million came from staffing cuts, vacant positions and textbook costs related to lower enrollment estimates.
The board sliced an additional $2 million from the budget by deferring textbooks replacements for another year.
The board agreed to pay for a scaled-back start to full-day kindergarten at seven of the county's neediest schools and pre-kindergarten at two of those campuses.
Maryland has ordered that districts provide full-day kindergarten for all students and half-day pre-kindergarten for needy children by 2007.
Howard is the only county that does not have any full-day kindergarten classes systemwide.
The board also approved a $95.7 million capital budget that helps pay for the county's 12th high school and a new facility for Cedar Lane School.