Howard County’s Spending Affordability Advisory Committee is recommending a conservative approach to budgets and spending in the near future, despite preliminary multi-year revenue projections showing 3.4–3.6% growth annually for fiscal 2020 through fiscal 2024.
“Changing demographics, anticipated reductions in federal and state expenditures, as well as possible decreases in the federal workforce will all affect the county’s long-term outlook,” the committee advised in its latest annual report, released in late February.
Several drivers are having a critical effect on the county’s ability to generate revenue, chief among them the aging of the population. The county’s Department of Community Resources and Services projects that the population older than age of 65 will double within the county by 2025.
Additionally, the county is dealing with a general slowing of growth, and is slowly running out of untouched land to develop.
“Revenues are slowing down, but we haven’t diminished our demand for services and the things we want,” said Steve Sachs, chair of the Spending Affordability Committee. “We’re going to need to prioritize some things, and be better, smarter, more efficient and effective with our spending.”
In fiscal 2018, the county experienced a $7 million projected revenue shortfall that resulted in a mid-year 2% budget reduction for county agencies, exclusive of education entities.
And despite a continued recovery in the real estate market, the county’s assessable property base, using the last state projections, will see a moderate growth rate of 2.4% in fiscal 2019 due to lower growth in residential property reassessment value and the state’s three-year phase-in policy.
Among the committee’s recommendations is the development of the fiscal 2019 budget based on projected revenue of $1.1 billion, an increase of 1.75% over the approved fiscal 2018 budget.
It has also recommended limiting authorized new general obligation bonds in fiscal 2019 to $75 million, and the development of a multi-year fiscal plan that strategically balances service needs and resources to build a sound fiscal structure supporting the county’s priorities.
“We think there also needs to be a long-term study to understand the financial impact of the recently passed Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) legislation,” Sachs said. “We’re not saying the legislation is good or bad, right or wrong, we just want to know what the impact is when you strip away the emotions and get the facts.”
Meanwhile, the county does have a few options for additional revenues. These include increasing the current transfer tax from 1% to 1.25% on property transactions, implementing an ambulance/EMS transport fee to be paid by insurance companies and other providers as reimbursement of costs incurred, and finding ways to recover costs by the police department and department of fire and rescue services for overtime associated with special events.
While education remains the county’s top budget and policy priority, it is also the county’s biggest fiscal challenge, considering that the Howard County Public School System’s (HCPSS) requested funding growth alone exceeds the county’s entire projected General Fund revenue growth of $19.1 million in fiscal 2019.
Moreover, the HCPSS budget request does not deal with the projected $50 million cumulative deficit in its own health benefit fund for fiscal 2018.
“We’d like to see the school board come up with a plan to tackle this debt,” Sachs said. “It’s egregious that it happened; there should be some sharing [of responsibility].”
With the deadline for candidacy filings now behind us, the County Council race has drawn one of the largest fields of contenders in years.
In District 1, Raj Kathuria is running on the Republican ticket, while incumbent Jon Weinstein will face Elizabeth Walsh in the Democratic primary. Republican John Liao and Democrat Opel Jones are running in District 2.
No Republicans filed to run in District 3, with the Democrat field made up of Hiruy Hadgu, Steven Hunt, Greg Jennings and Christiana Rigby.
In District 4, Lisa Kim filed for the Republican side, and the Democrat contenders are Deb Jung, Ian Bradley Moller-Knudsen and Janet Siddiqui.
Finally, in District 5, Republicans Jim Walsh and David Yungmann are joined by Democrat China Williams.
In the County Executive race, Republican incumbent Allan Kittleman is offset on the Democrat side by outgoing Councilman Calvin Ball (Dist. 2) and Harry Dunbar.
Siddiqui’s campaign got off to a rough start, with the director of the Division of Candidacy and Campaign Finance for Maryland’s Board of Elections referring her campaign finance report to the Office of the State Prosecutor on Feb. 22 for potential investigation.
According to the letter that accompanied the referral, the Excellence for Howard County Slate committee transferred $100,000 to Siddiqui’s campaign earlier in February in violation of election law, which limits slate transfers to $24,000.
Naturally, local political bloggers followed the money, to find the source coming from the unspent campaign coffers of Siddiqui’s husband, Nayab Siddiqui.
In response, Janet Siddiqui filed a new campaign finance report on March 20 noting a return of $76,000 to the slate, and receipt of a subsequent non-candidate loan in the same amount from her husband.
Long Reach Hearing
In late March, Howard County Zoning Board Chair Jen Terrasa (D-Dist. 3) announced that the board would schedule a hearing on the Long Reach Village Center case on May 7, making an exception to its earlier decision not to hear cases after a self-imposed mid-April deadline.
The announcement came after County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) made public a letter he issued to the board criticizing board members for a decision that would have delayed progress on the Urban Renewal project by up to a year, and handed over responsibility for the case to a newly-seated and relatively inexperienced Zoning Board in December.
The sitting Zoning Board, made up of the members of the county council, is legally prohibited from hearing zoning cases after the primary election in election years.
“Despite the early notice of this [mid-April] deadline, unfortunately, this case did not come to us until the very last minute,” Terrasa said, in a response to Kittleman’s letter. The Zoning Board announced the deadline in October 2017.
She added that the decision to hear the case beyond the board’s deadline “is based on our understanding that there was no opposition to this case at the Planning Board hearing, and the Petitioner asserts that the hearing for this case will take only one night. If this case ends up requiring more than one night, there is no guarantee that we will be able to finish the case this term.”
It must be noted that scheduling a date to hear this case on short notice is not a simple task. Zoning Board members do not have a wide open calendar to work with, given the personal work schedules of the board members, in addition to their duties as county council members and their involvement with other government boards, regional commissions and state government organizations.