For Ho. Co. Ques­tion B

Our view: Change would pro­vide some use­ful flex­i­bil­ity in the bud­get process

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

Howard County Ex­ec­u­tive Al­lan Kit­tle­man is mak­ing an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ar­gu­ment in his op­po­si­tion to Ques­tion B, a pro­posed char­ter amend­ment that would tin­ker with the county’s bud­get process. Given that Howard has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a well-man­aged county, there’s some­thing to be said for his rea­son­ing. Ul­ti­mately, though, we be­lieve the change vot­ers are be­ing asked to con­sider has lit­tle po­ten­tial for harm and pro­vides some flex­i­bil­ity in the bud­get­ing process that could serve le­git­i­mate pol­icy pur­poses.

Howard, like most Mary­land coun­ties, has an ex­ec­u­tive-driven bud­get process. Mr. Kit­tle­man pro­poses spend­ing, and the County Coun­cil’s power to re­view his plan con­sists solely of de­cid­ing what, if any­thing, to cut. That dy­namic is fun­da­men­tally sound, as it pre­vents mi­cro­manag­ing by the coun­cil. We wouldn’t sup­port a change to that ba­sic struc­ture, and this char­ter amend­ment doesn’t do that.

What it does is to af­ford the coun­cil with two ad­di­tional op­tions for what to do with funds they cut from the bud­get. They could ei­ther go to­ward shoring up the county’s pen­sion sys­tem or they could be placed in a con­tin­gency re­serve fund for the ex­ec­u­tive to use later in the bud­get year or in sub­se­quent years with the coun­cil’s ap­proval. Right now all the coun­cil can do when it cuts the bud­get is to use the savings to re­store any cuts the ex­ec­u­tive made to the school board’s bud­get re­quest or to cut prop­erty taxes.

This spring’s ex­pe­ri­ence show­cases the rea­son why the coun­cil might not al­ways want to give more money to the school sys­tem. Mr. Kit­tle­man in­creased school spend­ing sub­stan­tially this year, in­clud­ing full fund­ing for teacher raises and spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams. But he did not pro­vide the full amount the school board re­quested — a whop­ping $65 mil­lion more than it re­ceived last year. De­bate over the bud­get de­volved into ques­tions about the sys­tem’s prac­tices and trans­parency, with huge crowds show­ing up to pub­lic hear­ings to crit­i­cize the school board. The coun­cil ul­ti­mately chose not to send more funds to the sys­tem — a per­fectly rea­son­able choice un­der the cir­cum­stances.

There are also le­git­i­mate rea­sons why the coun­cil might not want to cut the prop­erty tax. The mag­ni­tude of cuts that would likely stem from the coun­cil’s re­duc­tion of the bud­get would be mi­nus­cule, and should the econ­omy sour, they might re­quire in­creases in fu­ture years. The point could be ar­gued ei­ther way, but it’s cer­tainly not ir­ra­tional to pre­fer sta­bil­ity in tax rates.

What would a con­tin­gency re­serve ac­com­plish? The char­ter amend­ment’s chief spon­sors, coun­cil mem­bers Jon We­in­stein and Mary Kay Si­gaty, point to cases in which the ex­ec­u­tive presents spend­ing pro­pos­als that don’t ap­pear fully fleshed out. In an op-ed in the Howard County Times, they cited as an ex­am­ple fund­ing in Mr. Kit­tle­man’s bud­get for im­prove­ments to the county’s snow tracker, a worth­while use of funds they said, but one for which the ex­ec­u­tive pro­vided “lit­tle in­for­ma­tion, few de­tails sup­port­ing the dol­lars re­quested or an an­tic­i­pated time­line.” If this amend­ment had been in place, the coun­cil could have placed the money in a con­tin­gent re­serve fund so that the ex­ec­u­tive could come back for ap­proval once the de­tails were fleshed out. As it is, the coun­cil ap­proved the ex­pen­di­ture.

Mr. Kit­tle­man has ar­gued that Howard County’s cur­rent bud­get process is in line with what the state and other Mary­land coun­ties do, but that’s not quite true. The leg­is­la­ture can cut funds from the gover­nor’s pro­posed bud­get and al­low them to ac­crue as un­al­lo­cated re­serves, or it can au­tho­rize the gover­nor to use them for spe­cific pur­poses if he so chooses. Bal­ti­more County has for years al­lowed funds cut by the coun­cil to col­lect as un­al­lo­cated re­serves with no ill ef­fects what­so­ever.

This pro­posed change comes at a time when Howard has a Repub­li­can ex­ec­u­tive and a Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity on the coun­cil, so some might be tempted to view it through a par­ti­san lens. In truth, though, di­vided govern­ment has been work­ing well in El­li­cott City. The coun­cil passed both of Mr. Kit­tle­man’s first two bud­gets unan­i­mously, and mem­bers ef­fec­tively took his side in the dis­pute with the school sys­tem. In that con­text, Howard vot­ers should see this bal­lot ques­tion for what it is: a mi­nor tweak to pro­vide some flex­i­bil­ity in the bud­get process. We rec­om­mend a vote in fa­vor.

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