Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) presented his $1.1 billion fiscal 2018 General Fund Operating Budget to the County Council on April 19.
The proposed budget for all funds totals $1.58 billion, a 5.6% increase over last year’s budget. Excluding PAYGO (Pay As You Go fee) for one-time expenses, the General Fund budget represents an increase of $39.2 million, or 3.7%, over Fiscal 2017.
“This budget will allow us to effectively deliver quality services while holding the line on taxes and incorporating a fiscally prudent approach,” Kittleman said.
The fiscal 2018 operating budget provides $572 million to the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), $10 million more than last year’s figure and $2.3 million above the required maintenance of effort level.
Other highlights include nearly $67 million for debt service payments for school system capital projects and the county’s OPEB contribution for school system retiree benefits; $34 million for Howard Community College; $20.3 million for the county’s library system; and $500,000 for the new 24/7 Education Initiative for programs targeting achievement disparities, mental health services for children, summer food access and the hiring of a human services specialist to support the initiative, grants management and program development.
According to Howard County Budget Director Holly Sun, revenue projections indicate moderate growth of about 3.7%. “The administration directed departments to treat [their requests] as a maintenance level budget,” she said.
School System Response
In a statement released in response to the budget proposal, HCPSS Superintendent Renee Foose said budgeted school funding is $53.9 million less than the amount requested by the Board of Education.
“[HCPSS] will provide the best educational program possible given the funding provided,” she said, but suggested consequences tied to increased enrollment in the 2017–18 school year the reduction may necessitate.
The school system anticipates needing to make cuts of $32.4 million in funding for employee health insurance, pensions and other fixed charges; $8.9 million for operations and building maintenance; $7.8 million for textbooks and other instructional supplies; $1.7 million for pupil transportation; and $3.1 million in other support, she said.
In addition, Foose said, these cuts would require staffing reductions in custodial, grounds, office and other areas.
“The school system understands the budgetary pressures affecting the county government and hopes to collaborate with county leaders to support our most important budget priorities,” she said.
The county council’s public hearing on the operating budget was scheduled for May 2.
New legislation presented to the council in April included a request to permit mobile phone service providers to install small cell antennas on streetlight poles in public rights of way to keep up with the growing public demand for high-speed data services.
Tara Harris, regional director of external and legislative affairs for AT&T, said the mobile carrier and its competitors would like to see the request expanded to include traffic signals and structures for signage as well.
“As streaming video continues to become more prominent and new apps and services are introduced, this growth in data use will continue to rise,” she said.
According to Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Jim Irvin, the accommodation will require the replacement of BGE stock poles with new streetlight poles that are slightly larger in diameter.
Councilmember Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4) recommended that the proposed legislation ensure that replacement poles will adhere to set design guidelines.
The council is also considering legislation to eliminate the Business Rural Crossroads (BRX) zoning provision.
“It was an unwanted, unneeded, poorly written measure laced with unintended consequences,” said Greater Highlands Crossroads Association Vice President Dan O’Leary, who testified in favor of the legislation at the council’s public hearing in April.
Another zoning change before the council would amend regulations to add instructional school use to the R-20 zoning district.
According to Tom Coale, attorney for Olenka School of Music Founder Olenka Stasyshyn, the legislation is limited to music, martial arts, yoga and meditation practices. “It’s intended for districts or parcels that do not have a good residential use, but are in residential zones,” Coale said, arguing that instructional schools are being priced out of commercial districts.
Community advocacy groups are opposed to the change. “What is the compelling need?” asked Stuart Kohn, president of the Howard County Citizens Association. He requested that the council deflect any zoning regulation amendments until the Department of Planning and Zoning completes its ongoing assessment process and comprehensive update of zoning regulations.
The council did, however, hear support for a zoning change that would add Cottage Food Business to the permitted home occupation uses and allow non-hazardous foods to be produced in homes and sold at farmers markets.
“It helps farmers,” said Keith Ohlinger of Woodbine. “We can sell our products to these folks so they can do value-added [processing].”
Debbie Goodman, a prospective Woodbine entrepreneur, said the change would allow her and a business partner to launch a small bakery business that will rely entirely on local produce and farm products.
“Being able to utilize my kitchen keeps my overhead down, gives me flexibility to stay at home with my kids and start the business,” Goodman said, adding that it would cost approximately $20,000 annually to rent a commercial kitchen 16 hours a week. “Under the cottage law, I can definitely do it for much less.”
A proposed voluntary citizen’s election fund system that would be taken to referendum in November drew overwhelming support from citizens testifying during the April public hearing. The incentive program provides matching funds for small donations to candidates who do not accept large or corporate donations.
“The amount of money your family has shouldn’t dictate the volume of your voice in our elections,” said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland Public Interest Research Group, a consumer and environmental advocacy group.
Linda Wengel, speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Howard County, characterized public funding as a step toward achieving several of the League’s goals of enhancing political equality and enabling candidates to compete equitably for public office.
Ellicott City resident Bernard Noppinger, however, said he opposes the bill. “I consider it unconstitutional to take [someone’s] taxpayer money and to approve it for another person to run for office to represent me,” he said.
Grace Kubofcik, also of Ellicott City, said she was optimistic that the measure could help turn around a decline in voter interest during primary elections that has occurred during the past 20 years in Maryland.
“I appreciate the provision that allows non-principled party candidates to participate in this process,” she said.