The Howard County Council approved County Executive Allan Kittleman’s fiscal 2017 Capital and Operating Budgets in May, casting its second consecutive unanimous budget vote in recent history.

“This budget demonstrates we can live within our means, while sustaining our shared priorities,” Kittleman said. As with last year’s budget, he said, the county faces many competing needs and requests, while anticipating only modest revenue growth.

“We prioritized education, public safety, community services, maintenance of infrastructure and transportation,” Kittleman said. “The approved operating budget totals $1.5 billion for all funds, including $1.06 million for the General Fund. The approved capital budget totals $316.2 million.”

The fiscal 2017 budget includes $77.3 million for county school projects ($44 million from the county, $33.3 million from the state), $9.8 million more than the previous year’s figure.

It also includes funding for the Elkridge library and 50+ Center, renovations to the Central and East Columbia libraries, new fire stations in Elkridge and Waterloo, Phase 3 of Blandair Regional Park, flood mitigation projects in historic Ellicott City and planning funds for a pool at the North Laurel Community Center.

The budget dedicates nearly $14 million to road construction, $5 million to resurfacing, and $45 million to water and sewer projects.

School Daze

The county’s General Fund Operating Budget includes $562 million in direct county funding for the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) — the highest level of funding ever, and a figure that exceeds the required Maintenance of Effort by $7.2 million. It fully funds negotiated teacher pay raises, special education and 56 new teacher positions to accommodate increased enrollment.

That didn’t prevent the HCPSS Board of Education (BOE) and Administration, however, from predicting a doomsday scenario fraught with increased class sizes, staff furloughs, nearly 200 layoffs, reallocation of some special education funds and the cutting of all new initiatives.

The BOE also resorted to a hastily arranged online public survey to encourage public input into the process. Ironically (or perhaps not), the BOE deemed that sort of guidance irrelevant and unnecessary only 14 months ago, when it disbanded its longstanding citizen’s budget review committee.

At the May legislative hearing, Special Education Citizens Advisory Committee Chair Barbara Krupiarz was among those questioning the BOE’s need to reallocate $490,000 in special education funds to its fixed charges category.

“[The BOE] has been historically bad at estimating fixed charges,” she said. “They estimate that they may be in the hole and end up with millions in surplus by the end of the year … based on past experience.”

Under The Microscope

The beleaguered BOE and school administration petitioned the Howard County Council to restore an additional $50.4 million that the school system was seeking over and above its current increase, prompting an unexpected response from Council Chair Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 2). Rather than acquiesce, he instead called for the County Auditor’s office to conduct a financial audit of items that may include the school system’s special education programs, legal services, and its health and dental fund.

He additionally called for the creation of a School System Budget Review Committee to further assist the council in analyzing the BOE’s fiscal 2017 budget and provide recommendations in preparation for the following year’s budget.

“Numerous questions have been raised about the enormous discrepancy between the county executive’s proposed budget and the board of education’s request,” Ball said. “The executive and his budget office have assured us repeatedly that his proposed budget fully funds the needs of our school system, including its negotiated agreements with our educators, and yet the board and its staff insist that the proposed budget will necessitate drastic cuts. I fully support funding the negotiated agreements, and I do not want to see massive cuts throughout our school system.”

BOE Chair Christine O’Connor characterized Ball’s proposed legislation as “an unnecessary conflict of interest for the County Auditor” and labeled it “an attempt to undermine the independence of the board and politicize education as never before in Howard County,” arguing that independent audits to ensure accountability are already in place.

New School Site

The cooperative spirit was not entirely dead last month, as the county executive announced an agreement with Chase Land LLC to purchase 70 acres off Route 1, just south of Mission Road, in Jessup, as the future site of the county’s 13th high school.

“This site is large enough to accommodate at least two schools, which are needed due to growth in eastern Howard County,” Kittleman said. “It also allows for the development of ball fields and a long overdue water storage facility with its own access road.”

“We’re pleased to work with the county on this deal, which ultimately satisfies infrastructure needs in education, recreation and utilities,” said Kingdon Gould, Jr., president of the Gould Property Co., general partner of Chase Land and Annapolis Junction Holdings.

The purchase price for the property, which would be paid in installments, is estimated at $23.1 million. The property acquisition would be included in the county’s capital budgets over two years, with funding coming from existing General Obligation Bonds from the current land acquisition project, Metropolitan District Bonds, property asset sales and Program Open Space funds.

Council News

During the May legislative session, the county council overrode Kittleman’s veto of changes to zoning regulations for Corridor Activity Center (CAC) zoning along Route 1. The change was requested by Atapco Howard Square I Business Trust, which argued that commercial space requirements for its development were too excessive to guarantee success of the project.

Councilman Greg Fox (R-Dist. 5), who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he plans to take the question to referendum.

“There’s enough changes in this that were never discussed in the [Zoning Regulation Amendment], DPZ recommendations, Planning Board recommendations … or any of the testimony he received, that’s where the concern is,” he said. “It’s not just about this property; there are other properties that are potentially impacted. We still to this day do not know how these have been impacted.”

Although Councilwoman Jen Terrasa (D-Dist. 3) voted to override the veto, she admitted she is not a fan of CAC zoning.

“I think it promised one thing and delivered another; it’s not working,” she said. “I don’t think there’s too high a requirement for commercial in these zones. CAC needs fixing, and that’s on us.”