Howard County has finished its latest budget cycle. Some specific new high-priced items raised widespread concern, considering expensive infrastructure updates are needed across the County. The council recently applied the brakes to the Lakefront Library, a proposed Howard Hughes project with an estimated cost of over $143 million, by implementing a multiple sourced bidding process. This was a commendable decision, considering the most recent Request for Bid by the County for a new library was $60 million less. This proposal brought focus to capital spending needs in other areas.

The Howard County Public School System has encountered transportation issues due to bus driver shortages. Recent changes in providers led to a lawsuit against the school system filed and subsequently dismissed by the prior vendors. In response to new contracts, parents are complaining about altered service areas, longer walking distances, and schedule reliability. The high cost of these contract issues raises the idea of the County providing bus service itself, which would require a large upfront expense. Many schools in need of maintenance updates, renovations, and of course, the constant need for new schools, often pits the school budget against large expenditures elsewhere in the County.

Another large budget item is the County’s “Safe and Sound” plan, a long-term program to better safeguard the Ellicott City Historic area through flood mitigation efforts, including a very expense tunnel project. Although cost projections have increased by almost $50 million, the County is seeking Federal and State sources to cover gaps in financing. Area residents want to see significant progress as they still feel vulnerable in the flood-prone region. 

Recent recommendations by the Howard County Spending Affordability Advisory Committee include lowering our total bond debt; while, at the same time pointing out long-term projected shortfalls. A detailed “wants versus needs” analysis will be necessary going forward. It is laudable that the County is planning to implement a longer range fiscal advisory group in addition to the current SAAC’s annual work. 

With so many important, competing resource needs, the council needs to pay close attention to land use changes that are set to occur over the next year. Development regulation changes have far-reaching financial impacts on infrastructure and school enrollment. Policy changes with long-term budget impacts must be made prudently.

The Council will soon be voting on HoCo By Design, the County’s once per ten-year update of the General Plan that guides development goals. Going forward, we must not undo fixing of past financial mistakes by lowering building fees, or by providing significant funding to independent projects without required offsetting County benefit. 

The current HoCo By Design plan includes many implementation suggestions to give incentives, fiscal and otherwise, to building projects. Our demand for housing is so great, there is no need to incentivize market rate housing. Advocates have long expressed concern about how to best provide more affordable housing. We need to proceed carefully to attain that goal in the most cost-effective way. Attracting more supply of affordable units will only occur if we firmly require it to get proposed County-funded benefits.

Continued public hearings on these land use issues will be before the Council on July 19 and Sept. 20. As always, you can give the council your opinion on these and other legislative matters at [email protected]