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Council Approves 2016 Howard Operating Budget

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After a two-day delay to allow more time to fine-tune last-minute amendments, the Howard County Council reconvened on May 22 and unanimously approved the county’s capital and operating budgets for fiscal 2016.

For those keeping score, this year’s budget process was the first for County Executive Allan Kittleman (R). It is also the first budget to receive a vote of approval from Councilman Greg Fox (R-Dist. 5), who has cast the lone dissenting vote for each of the previous eight budgets submitted during his term of office.

Fox acknowledged that the council’s vote on amending Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) contributions for the county school system swayed his vote.

“We are doing our commitment to the community, to the citizens and, most importantly, to the employees in funding OPEB,” Fox said. “I’m concerned, still, that unless we have unanticipated revenues, we won’t have the PAYGO [pay as you go funding] that I think a lot of us would like coming forward for road resurfacing.”

The council did not approve an amendment submitted by Council Members Jen Terrasa (D-Dist. 3) and Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 2) seeking to use $7 million in OPEB contributions to partially fund teacher raises and pay for playground equipment and renovations at Oakland Mills Middle School.

“I was disappointed,” Terrasa said. “This [budget] does support education, but I wish we had been able to do more.”

Also included in the budget was a last-minute request to reallocate $100,000 from the Department of Police for a Community Service Partnership grant benefiting the Patuxent Heritage Greenway. According to Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4), the allotment does not constitute a reduction for the police force, but instead is a balance left over from two positions that were reallocated under the speed camera fund.

School Construction

Totaling about $1.4 billion, the fiscal 2016 budget reduced the county’s borrowing by about $24 million, included a total of $776 million in state and county funding for schools, and allows for construction of a new elementary school in the southeast. It also provides for a new library and senior center to be constructed in Elkridge.

“I am pleased that the council left intact the $2.9 million I included for the Howard County Public School System over the mandated Maintenance of Effort requirement,” Kittleman said. “Our commitment to improving public education is well served by the appropriations for a new elementary school, replacement of Wilde Lake Middle and substantial renovation or expansion to existing schools, including Patuxent Valley Middle.”

The budget will enable Howard Community College to complete its Science, Engineering and Technology Building and begin the design of renovations for the Nursing Science and Technology Building, he said.

The budget also provides funding toward construction of a third police station and relocation of the Elkridge Fire Station into a new facility.

Kittleman observed that revitalization activity in Downtown Columbia will contribute to the county’s ability to do more with future budgets.

“In order to sustain a more secure future and to sustain our high quality of life, we must invest in infrastructure and projects that will drive revenue growth that is consistent with our population growth,” he said.

Legislation

During the May legislative session, the council approved a transfer of $33,600 from the Grants Fund Contingency Reserve to the Department of Public Works to pay for upgrades to the county’s flood warning system, and also approved a transfer of $1.8 million to the Office of Transportation for the county’s Connect-A-Ride grant.

The council also confirmed a resolution tabled since July 2014 confirming the reappointment of William Erskine to the Howard County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors.

“I was concerned that we should have more business folks with commercial operations or industrial [backgrounds], because we had three land use attorneys,” Fox said. He acknowledged that his comfort level increased with the recent filing of a candidate seeking to replace one of the other land use attorneys whose term is expiring.

The council approved legislation that prohibits the carrying of firearms in county-owned buildings with the exception of police officers and those who carry guns while on county business. Sigaty joined co-sponsors Ball, Terrasa and Councilman Jon Weinstein (D-Dist. 1) in voting for the ban, while Fox cast the lone vote against the bill. Kittleman signed the bill into law on May 12.

Healthy Food

The council’s public hearing on a Healthy Food bill in May drew considerable interest from citizens, business owners and nonprofits. Sponsored by Ball, the bill seeks to create nutritional standards for food and beverages sold on county property, but exempts schools and athletic associations. It also makes a provision for water to be provided free of charge during county events.

Among the supporters were Lawrence Appel, a physician and internist for Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“Education by itself is … not sufficient,” he said. “In order to make a dent in this [obesity] epidemic you have to change the default, which is the point of this bill.”

Representatives for The Horizon Foundation, the American Heart Association and other health-related organizations also spoke in favor of the bill.

Brad Myers, of Hanover, was among those who spoke in opposition.

“What I find very ironic … is that we live in one of the most highly educated areas in the entire country, yet we don’t feel that our residents have the education to make their own proper choice,” he said.

Howard County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Leonardo McClarty raised concerns related to product placement and requiring vendors to charge 25 cents more for non-healthy beverage options.

“I’m a taxpayer; why should I have to pay for somebody else’s free water?” queried Loretta Shields, of Dayton, who said the requirement would hurt vendors who sold water at events. “If it’s a water fountain that’s fine, but if it’s bottled water, you’re giving it away, and it’s coming out of my pocket, too.”

According to Fox, the administration’s estimate of the overall impact of the bill’s water requirement is approximately $1 million.

On May 27, the Association of Community Services (ACS) conducted a Full Spectrum Housing Coalition Event in the Whole Foods parking lot to call for the introduction of legislation to ensure that affordable housing is included as Downtown Columbia is redeveloped.

At stake, according to an ACS flier, is the possibility that an additional 2,200 housing units could be approved, constructed and marketed without any units affordable to those earning less than $60,000 a year.

School Budget

The Howard County Board of Education adopted its Operating Budget for fiscal 2016 on May 27. The $776.3 million budget fully funds the board’s total budget request and includes $3 million in county funding above Maintenance of Effort requirements. It represents $544.1 million in county funding, $222.3 million from the state and $9.9 million from federal and other sources.

Included in the budget is $11.5 million for salary increases and $3.1 million for new educators to meet increased enrollment next year.

The board also adopted the $67.5 million fiscal 2016 Capital Budget, which includes funding for the Wilde Lake Middle School replacement, slated to be the state’s first net zero energy school facility when it opens in August 2017. Also included in the Capital Budget are Patuxent Valley Middle School renovations, scheduled for completion by August 2017; a Waverly Elementary School addition, to be completed by August 2018; and a new elementary school adjacent to Thomas Viaduct Middle School, targeted to open in August 2018.

“Our … budgets provide the funding needed to sustain our educational excellence and continue our progress toward the world-class instructional program envisioned in Vision 2018,” said Board Chair Janet Siddiqui. “Despite a challenging budget climate, I am pleased that we have the resources needed to support all students, including those with greatest need, and provide full access to educational opportunity for all.”