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Howard County Spending Affordability Report Issued

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The Spending Affordability Advisory Committee appointed by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) delivered a 16-page report last month, detailing suggestions to ensure the county will maintain its fiscal integrity during the next five years.

“The intent of our report is to spark a community conversation about the best ways to make sure the government is able to maintain the high quality of life for its residents for many years to come,” said Steve Sachs, a business executive who chaired the 29-member panel.

The report projects a 1.5% increase in revenues for fiscal 2016, $15.2 million above the approved fiscal 2015 budget. The committee recommended that the county limit the next fiscal year’s bond authorization to $90 million, and projected an average growth of 3.6% per year in General Fund revenues for fiscal years 2017–20.

Although personal income is growing and property taxes show signs of recovery, reductions in state aid and other unknowns linked to federal government spending — combined with a $15.8 million downward adjustment in fiscal 2015 revenues — may result in moderate growth for General Fund revenues in the near future, the report said.

Revenue options suggested by the committee include an ambulance fee, reimbursement of costs for public safety staffing at for-profit events and a half-point increase in the transfer tax designated to school construction projects.

Additionally, the committee identified options to study that could help address or slow down key cost drivers, such as the contribution to the Board of Education, employee compensation increases based on collective bargaining agreements, pension and retiree health costs, and debt service payments for new bonds to finance capital projects.

Other recommendations included partnering with different entities to boost commercial development, an analysis of industrially-zoned, vacant, buildable land that could be identified for new development, and an evaluation of facilities to assess their need and use, current condition and rehabilitation cost.

Personnel Changes

In March, Kittleman announced that Wanda Hutchinson would assume the role of administrator of the county’s Office of Human Resources. Hutchinson joined the county as assistant human resources (HR) administrator in 2008 and has served as acting HR administrator since September.

Another personnel decision announced in March was the choice of Raj Kudchadkar as director of special projects for the Department of Planning and Zoning.

According to an e-mail issued by Kudchadkar, Lisa Terry will take over the position he is vacating at the Howard County Office of Military Affairs and the Fort Meade Regional Growth Management Committee. She previously served as deputy director of the Office of Military Affairs and as mission partner manager for the Regional Growth Management Committee.

To begin development of an Urban Renewal Plan addressing Long Reach Village Center, Kittleman and the Long Reach Village Board have scheduled four meetings to seek input from residents about that village center.

“We want to hear from residents directly affected by what’s available in their village center,” Kittleman said. “Before making decisions or drawing up plans, we will offer multiple opportunities for residents to talk about their wants and needs.” Sessions will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at Stonehouse in the village center on April 29, May 28, June 11 and Sept. 17.

’Snow More Money

At the Howard County Council legislative hearing in March, Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Jim Irvin informed the council that his department would be seeking transfer of $1.99 million from the General Fund Contingency Reserve for unanticipated snow removal costs.

“We’ve had 19 events in the county that we’ve had to respond to,” Irvin said. “Our [snow removal] budget was $1.4 million and we’re pushing $4 million in expenditures.”

DPW will begin discussions with the county’s Budget Office on options to make up the remaining difference. “We’re pretty lean at this point,” Irvin said.

The council approved a $50,000 Grants Contingency Fund transfer to the Office of Transportation for the county’s Electric Bus Grant, and also approved reorganization plans for the Office of Community Sustainability, formerly the Office of Environmental Sustainability.

A resolution to reorganize the county’s Human Rights Commission was tabled to allow more time for discussion of the details.

Gun Bill Introduced

A bill introduced for consideration in March by Council Members Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 2), Jen Terrasa (D-Dist. 3) and Jon Weinstein (D-Dist. 1) would ban the carrying of firearms on Howard County property with the exception of police officers and those specifically permitted to carry guns on county property.

“If we were to go to Congress … guns wouldn’t be allowed; in Annapolis, the legislative body, guns aren’t allowed,” Ball said. “This is the place where people do the business of Howard County, and I thought it was important to try to make it as safe as possible.”

Considering that gun violence and gun owners rights are hot button topics that haven’t seemed to lose any heat over the years, perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was that only nine county residents offered testimony on the bill, three in favor of the ban and six opposed. Jeff Hulbert, a Queen Anne’s County resident, also spoke before the council to oppose the bill.

Al Liebeskind, of Columbia, said he saw no justification for any person to bring a firearm or weapon into any public building. “I urge you to seriously think of the safety of those employed by our county or those who choose to visit our county office buildings,” he said.

Dave Marker, of Columbia, speaking on behalf of Organizing for Action of Howard County, said reducing gun violence is one of his organization’s core issues. “It’s a shame we have to consider such a bill,” he said, citing last year’s fatal shooting at The Mall in Columbia, the prevalence of angry confrontations and the incidence of accidental firearms discharges as events the bill could help prevent.

Gun Bill Opposition

Jeff Underwood, of Ellicott City, president of the Maryland Munitions Group, asserted that the mall’s own prohibition against firearms did nothing to prevent an individual from flouting that prohibition and killing two people.

“I believe it is both unnecessary and ill-conceived,” he said. “Defensive gun use by concealed carry permit holders is … 7.3 times more than the [firearms] homicide rate in the United States. Since we can’t eliminate firearms, we shouldn’t be banning them from lawful concealed carry permit holders who have shown just reason for carrying them.”

Bernard Noppinger, also of Ellicott City, suggested that the county would have to install equipment to scan citizens entering its public buildings, “an additional expense to a county that is already strapped with a budget shortfall.”

With a total of approximately 15,000 concealed carry permit holders in Maryland, said Brian Harvey, of Highland, the bill, as written, specifically targets less than one-third of 1% of the population of Maryland. “They are not a risk to our community,” he said.

Alexander Rey, of Columbia, a concealed carry permit holder, said it is “hypocritical for elected officials to ask us to relinquish our safety and the ability to defend ourselves. I don’t want to die like a dog [in a hypothetical active shooter situation], I want to die defending myself like a man. I think I deserve that much. Please don’t take that away from me.”

The council is scheduled to vote on the proposed gun legislation at its next legislative session on April 6.