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Spending Affordability, Social Issues Drive Funding Concerns

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A report issued in March by the Howard County Spending Affordability Advisory Committee advises cautious optimism in anticipating projected revenue growth of $32.7 million — a 3.2% increase — in fiscal 2017.

Consisting of 10 government officials and 19 county residents appointed by County Executive Allan Kittleman, the committee was tasked with reviewing the status and projections of revenues and expenditures for the county for fiscal 2017, as well as for fiscal years 2018–2021.

Kittleman also asked the committee to gauge future revenue levels, consider the impact of variable economic indicators, including projected personal income and assessable base growth, and evaluate expenditure levels with consideration of long-term obligations facing the county.

“We wanted to understand the demographics of the county … and look at the capital budgets to see how they stacked up against other counties, as well as how they were when we looked at them over three or four years,” said Steve Sachs, who served for the second consecutive year as chair of the advisory committee.

Despite the moderate increase in projected revenue, “We still believe it’s imperative that the county deliberately consider a range of revenue and expenditure options to position itself for a longer period of moderate growth,” he said.

Debt Obligation

In terms of debt authorization, the committee recommended limiting new obligation bonds in fiscal 2017 to $85 million, a tighter reduction than its $90 million recommendation last year. In fiscal years 2014 and 2015, the county’s debt level was approximately $120 million.

“What we’re looking at is what did that do to debt service … downstream,” Sachs said.

Moreover, “the county currently has $381 million in authorized, but unissued, general obligations bonds that continue to obligate further debt capacity,” he said. “No business would operate like that. The [Howard County] Council has also been concerned about this same issue, so there’s an alignment.”

The committee’s study projects revenue growth of approximately 3.6% during the next four years, “not bad, but nowhere near what we’ve historically been used to,” Sachs said. “The committee suggests the county develop a multi-year fiscal plan and start thinking in the out years in terms of expenditures and uses of funds versus on a year-to-year basis.”

It’s not an indication that the county is in bad shape, he said. “We’re saying there’s a new reality to revenues and expenses, and we need to manage them [accordingly]. What we’d love to see as a result of this report is that there be more conversations [about the budget] in the community.”

Other Considerations

The Spending Affordability Committee is once again recommending an ambulance and Emergency Medical Service fee. “Every county around is us doing it, therefore we’re subsidizing them by not recovering that money,” said Sachs.

However, that option has its drawbacks.

Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services Chief John Butler “[doesn’t] want to be in a situation where someone wouldn’t use an ambulance because they thought they were going to have to pay for it,” Sachs said, adding that some residents might consider the fee double taxation in light of the existing fire tax.

For that reason, the committee also recommended that the issue and its impact on the county’s most vulnerable citizens be studied by a task force that includes members from Howard County General Hospital, local nonprofit organizations, insurance providers and the Department of Citizen Services.

Addressing the storm water remediation fee, the committee recommended it not be removed prior to the establishment of an alternative fee structure.

“There should be other ways of addressing the cost for this,” Sachs said. “It’s a regressive tax, and we think there needs to be a fairer balance.”

As the county’s aging population continues to increase and developable land becomes more scarce, “revenue growth is going to continue to moderate,” Sachs said. “We need to take that into account, and we all have to talk about that.”

The full Spending Affordability Committee Report is available online at www.howardcountymd.gov in the Budget section of the County Administration web page.

Housing Options

Speaking to the Association of Community Services (ACS) in March, Kittleman provided an update on the upcoming budget process, affordable housing and other issues affecting local nonprofit organizations.

“There are a lot of groups like the Grassroots [Crisis Intervention Center] that we’re never not going to fund,” Kittleman said, questioning the rationale of having these groups navigate the funding application process every year. “We’re going to look at it over the next year to see if we can fix it; it takes time away from [them].”

The affordable housing issue for Downtown Columbia redevelopment remains unresolved, he added, with the policy of allowing developers to pay a fee-in-lieu instead of building a specific amount of affordable units called into question.

“The problem I had was that the Howard Hughes Corp. purchased General Growth Properties with the understanding that [fee-in-lieu] is what the deal was,” Kittleman said. “If we change it, we shouldn’t change it to their betterment and we shouldn’t change it to their detriment; we should change it to being roughly what they expected to pay in the first place.”

On April 14, the Howard County Planning Board will begin consideration of the Howard Research and Development Corp.’s petition to negotiate and execute a Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreement (DRRA) for Downtown Columbia.

“Councilwoman Jen Terrasa (Dist. 3) has a Zoning Regulation Amendment that is a 15% requirement,” he added. “The Planning Board should hear both arguments at the same time.”

During the ACS meeting, Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center Executive Director Andrea Ingram confirmed that a 35-unit housing facility for the chronically homeless is on track for development now that the settlement process for state funding has been completed.

Planned on an 8-acre site near the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Jessup, the new facility also will provide a new location for the Route 1 Day Resource Center that is open three days per week and currently serves about 65 homeless people per day of operation.

“I believe all the permits have been completed, and I believe it’s ready to go, we’re just waiting on [the county executive’s] schedule for the groundbreaking,” Ingram said. “It’s really moving on, it’s really going to happen, and it’s very exciting.”