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May 2013:

Howard Considers Same-Sex Benefits for County Employees

By George Berkheimer, Senior Writer

May 6, 2013

Posted in: News

The Howard County Council is set to vote on May 6 to include same-sex spouses under the Howard County Employees’ Retirement Plan and the county’s Police and Fire Employees’ Retirement Plan.

According to Todd Allen, the county’s chief human resources administrator, two pieces of legislation before the council amend the plans to bring them in line with the Civil Marriage Protection Act, which was passed during the 2012 Maryland legislative session and upheld in a referendum vote last November.

“An important example is the joint and survivor retirement benefit offered under both plans, which has some plans that are only available to spouses, and that language wasn’t clear,” Allen told the council. “This language clarifies that spouses can be same-sex or opposite-sex in accordance with the Maryland law.”

He added that a review by the county’s actuary indicated there would be no fiscal impact to implementing the legislation.

The county had already implemented changes to its benefit plan upon passage of the Civil Marriage Protection Act, he said, and already provided domestic partner benefits.

“We are basically treating everyone the same now in terms of [being] eligible for health insurance,” Allen said.

Three people who were already receiving domestic partner benefits have been grandfathered in under that plan, he added, but new hires will now go through the identical process as opposite-sex spouses if the council approves the legislation.

Federal Campus

The council is also considering legislation that will convey ownership of Sterling Road in North Laurel and slightly more than six acres of adjoining real estate owned by the county to several Emerson Development LLCs.

Tom Butler, deputy director of the county’s Department of Public Works, said the change would allow the property owner to develop a government campus providing leased space to the federal government for an office complex.

“The Emerson LLC will propose a fence to completely encapsulate or enclose the government campus in the future,” he said, and will appear similar to the security fence around the existing leased property on the opposite side of Stephens Road from the property in question.

A portion of Sterling Road has already been conveyed for this purpose; the new resolution would extend private ownership of the road up to its intersection with Stephens Road. “All costs associated with the road closure and conveyance will be borne by the developer, Emerson Development LLC,” Butler said. “There is no fiscal impact to the county.”

Housing Action Plan

Housing and Community Development Director Tom Carbo asked the council to adopt the county’s Annual Action Plan for Housing and Community Services, which will allow the county to qualify to receive federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Home Investment Partnership Program (HIPP) funds.

In the past, the funds have been used for a variety of purposes, including the acquisition and rehabilitation of group homes and transitional housing for special needs populations, economic development loans, and for job training programs benefiting low- and moderate-income residents.

According to Carbo, the amount of funding has decreased in recent years. The county expects to receive approximately $850,000 in CDBG funding this year, compared to a level that exceeded $1.25 million in 2010. Likewise, he said, HIPP funding has dropped from $550,000 in 2010 to an expected amount less than $300,000 this year.

Consequently, he said, this year’s action plan will focus on three major areas: maintaining continuing commitments, providing affordable housing and assisting providers of homeless services.

“CDBG funds will be used to pay rent for the Grassroots Day Resource Center and for the North Laurel Multiservice Center,” Carbo said, in addition to helping pay for bonds on the new Roger Carter Community Center in Ellicott City.

Three new programs are included in the plan this year. They include relocation assistance for Beechcrest Mobile Home Park residents and a lease-purchase program that will enable the Housing Commission to acquire and renovate distressed properties. They will, in turn, be offered to limited-income households on a rent with an option to purchase basis.

The third new program is actually a dormant rehabilitation loan program that provides loans to low- and moderate-income homeowners for renovation assistance.

In addition to a lower level of funding, Carbo also acknowledged that the proposed plan anticipates sequestration, which cuts the county’s grants by about 5%.

“We’re beyond the point of being able to make across-the-board cuts,” he said. “We’ve had to cut actual programs out that were funded in past years, but are not being funded this year.”

2014 Budget

In his $920.8 million fiscal 2014 operating budget proposal released on Apr. 19, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) included record funding for the county’s school system. He also included the first general cost-of-living increase for county employees since 2008.

“We managed wisely and sought efficiencies through trying economic times,” Ulman said. “Our county employees learned to do more with less, and they should be compensated for their efforts.”

The proposed operating budget contains $497.5 million for K–12 education, a $15.1 million increase from the previous year that provides for 130 new instructional, special education, health and community service positions within the Howard County Public School System.

There is also a $12.45 million payment for teacher pensions and $3.2 million that goes toward fulfilling the school system’s obligation for retiree benefits.

Ulman has proposed a 7.5% year-over-year increase to $29.1 million for Howard Community College, and a 3.44% increase in library funding to $17.54 million.

Other budget highlights include $96.6 million for the police department and $5 million in one-time funding for arts and cultural programs and facilities in Downtown Columbia, which will help facilitate the Downtown Columbia Plan.

Another one-time funding package of $2.5 million is aimed at spurring innovation through economic development programs with private sector partners. This initiative includes $800,000 to create a Center for Conscious Entrepreneurship business accelerator supporting high-growth companies; $530,000 for a 3-D digital manufacturing prototype laboratory in partnership with the Maryland Regional Manufacturing Institute; $400,000 for local research institutions to accelerate technology commercialization; and $100,000 for an Angel Academy that trains high net worth individuals to become active angel investors in Maryland.

“All of these programs will keep Howard County in the forefront of creating jobs and staying ahead as technology evolves,” said Lawrence Twele, president and CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Overall, Ulman’s general fund budget represents a 4.89% increase from the previous fiscal year. One-time expenditures would bring the operating total to $966.7 million, for a 7.45% increase. County property tax remains at $1.014 per $100 in assessed property value, and the local income tax remains at 3.2% of personal income.

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