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County Surplus

Posted by David Keelan on Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It should come as no surprise to the interested observer that Howard County is projecting a budget surplus (Baltimore Sun today).

The two largest revenue streams for the County (income and real estate) are growing more than projections had estimated.

“…property tax revenues are running $14.5 million ahead of projections, while income tax receipts are expected to be up $4.4 million.”

The HoCoMD Blog has written on many occasions that the County always (almost always) under estimates this revenue stream.  The silver lining (I guess) is that these under projections make up for declining tax revenues.

Those increases more than offset about $4.9 million in lower-than-predicted general budget revenues in other categories. The slowing real estate market put a $4.4 million dent in the estimated real estate recordation revenues.

The County Council expressed their appreciation to Raymond Wacks for coming to a Council meeting to discuss the surplus.

With the economy going through gyrations and compared to some neighbors Howard County is in good shape.

In order for Ken Ulman to maintain is B+ grade he is going to have to manage this very carefully.

Although, I think the County taxes us too much, a la 30% tax increases, that is now history – kinda.

While, “the county is projecting a $13.7 million surplus when the budget year ends June 30” that money is not allowed to be spent in the new operating budget.  What is the projected revenue for the next budget and does the County expect to run additional surpluses (they never do expect to but history tells us they almost always do).

The County Executive’s next budget needs to take into consideration a slowing economy and perhaps a recession.  The housing market and consumer spending are taking hits that ripple through the economy and effect tax revenues.  Many businesses and sectors have already written off 2008 as a poor year (economically speaking) and many don’t predict a recovery until 2009.

I would be willing to give Ken Ulman another B+  if he begins to reign in spending now and starts to prepare the County for a minor increase in the next budget.  I will give him an A+ if he reduces the next budget in anticipation of lower revenue estimates.

Since I mentioned the B+ I wanted to briefly comment on that article.

David Keelan gives Ken Ulman a “B+” for his first year as Howard County executive, which might seem unremarkable, except that Keelan is a Republican blogger and a sometime critic of Democrats like Ulman.

“He’s being very deliberate and very careful,” Keelan said, and “he’s got a pretty good staff in place.” Ulman began his second year in office Wednesday.

Keelan’s only complaint, he said, is that Ulman made an 11th-hour campaign promise last year to block the proposed 23-story condominium tower in Columbia but didn’t actively support County Council legislation intended to stop it.

I was not misquoted.  Although I wasn’t fully quoted either.  I have been poised over my computer key board ready to blast Ken Ulman, and honestly he hasn’t provided a lot of opportunity to do so.  He is doing a decent job – through a good staff.

I still despise him for his campaign tactics and resume enhancements, but hey he emulates a winning campaign strategy.  Both those reflect on his character – poorly I might add.  However, he has proven (up to this moment) to be a good manager only in the sense that he lets the experts do their jobs.

What I wish had made it into that article were the good marks I gave to the County Council.  Particularly Calvin Ball, Greg Fox, and Courtney Watson.  We are very fortunate to have a good balance on the council.  Greg Fox, as the lone Republican, is actually relevant and his peers listen to him because he is a valued member of the team (need I mention “FIRE TAX”).  Calvin is independent and Watson is very deliberate. 

I think Ken and his administration would walk all over a weak Council (he has tried to walk over this council – just speak to your Council member) and he needs to coach his team to work more closely and in a more collaborative manner with the council.  This is a strong and unified County Council – we should all be very grateful.  I give a lot of credit to the leadership of Calvin Ball – he fostered collaboration and it showed.  This isn’t partisan – this is about personalities.  Calvin made some mistakes in legislative areas, but in terms of making sure the Council was relevant and worked together he did an awesome job.  He blazed a good trail for Courtney Watson to widen.

The only improvement that could be made to the Council is if it were all Republican (for Pete’s sake I am just kidding – kinda).

This is not Baltimore City where the Mayor can pretty much do what the Mayor wants to do. 

So, Ken’s B+ is mostly due to the A+ I gave to the County Council.

Posted in Budget, County Council, County Executive, David Keelan, Howard County | 16 Comments »

HoCo Board of Public Works

Posted by David Keelan on Thursday, October 18, 2007

What?  Didn’t know we had one?  I don’t mean the Department of Public Works or the Public Works Board either.

The Maryland State Board of Public Works consists of the Governor, the Comptroller, and the Treasurer. 

In order to protect and enhance the State’s fiscal integrity, the Board of Public Works ensures that significant State expenditures are necessary and appropriate, fiscally responsible, fair, and lawful.

Apparently Howard County has a Board of Public works modeled after that of the State except it consists of one member – Ken Ulman.  Their web site is here

Ken was the “Director of the Board of Public Works” so he knows how things are done.

According to the Howard County Times Mr. Ulman decided, all by his lonesome:

…to buy a floor in a proposed Columbia office building for $4 million…

County Councilman Greg Fox obviously thought that is was odd that the Executive would by pass the County Council on such a large sum of money so he asked the question and received an answer.

…an Oct. 15 opinion … from the county Office of Law states that the purchase must be added to the county’s budget through the approval of the County Council.

Mr. Ulman’s response:

Ulman, a Democrat, said this week that he did not originally believe it necessary to amend the budget to spend the $4 million on the project, but added that he would send such an amendment to the council soon.

Well Mr. Ulman must think he can spend County money anyway he chooses.  Seriously, why would he not want to run this by the County Council or even his own legal advisors?  He served on the County Council – he fully understands the role and responsibilities of the County Council.  Yet…

To boot why would he not want a public hearing on the matter?  It is the law after all.  Wasn’t it Ken who wanted more transparancy in County Government?

Thankfully Mr. Fox forced the point and County Council will now be able to ask, why the County needs this particular piece of yet to be constructed property?

Peter Khalaf, a spokesman with the building’s developer, the Baltimore-based MetroVentures/USA Inc….expects to break ground on the project in October or November and finish it by fall 2008, Khalaf said.

I would like to know why the County can not use currently available office space.   Would it have anything to do with the fact that MetroVentures/USA Inc. contributed $3,000.00 to Ken Ulman’s campaign for County Executive?  Just asking. 

Perhaps this is a question best left for the Howard County Board of Public Works. 

I am sure that their are other developers in the County that Mr. Ulman could have done business with and many of them contributed to his campaign.  However, this just looks bad.  Trying to spend $4M of the County’s money with a large campaign contributor without vetting it through the County Council is simply questionable and a tad arrogant.

When a similiar situation came up – relative to campaign contributions and alleged favors – there were a lot of comments.  Check it out.

Posted in County Council, County Executive, Howard County | 6 Comments »

Don’t listen to me, I represent a special interest group.

Posted by Ed C on Saturday, September 29, 2007

At the recent Howard County Council hearing, as reported by the Baltimore Sun (Tower fans, critics heard):

He (Alan Klein) urged the council members to “protect the human scale of Columbia” and not “bow to special interests.”

Who is Alan Klein?

But Alan Klein of the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown, a group trying to block the tower, which they see as large building that will dwarf the rest of Town Center, said his group has “almost 400 supporters” who “have no vested interest in the decision other than the quality of life.”

I hate to be the one to break it to Mr. Klein, but he represents a “special interest” himself, unless of course he really meant “people who disagree with us and therefore are evil.”

The Hedgehog Report has an interesting poll from the local bloggers about the plaza Residences in Downtown Columbia, HoCo: What the Online Gang Thinks…

Posted in County Council, Ed C, Howard County | 7 Comments »

HoCo Council Public Hearing, Monday Sept 17th @ 6:30 PM

Posted by Ed C on Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Howard County Council hearing will begin an hour early, starting at 6:30 PM to accommodate a full schedule. The full agenda can be seen here. Excluding a slew of appointments, the are 15 items on the agenda including:

  • Green neighborhood requirements. (116-2007)
  • New Town Zoning – Height limits (ZRA-79, ZRA-83) – Mary Kay Sigaty’s bills to retroactively apply height limits to the 23-story Plaza Tower.
  • Horse Park Task Force (114-2007) – Introduced by Greg Fox and Courtney Watson to create a 90 day task force to study the issues with creating a horse park in HoCo.
  • Full-time firearms investigator (No. 3- Fiscal 2008)
  • Soil and Water testing for golf course development (60-2007)

The council is prepared to continue testimony the next afternoon, but don’t worry according to Chairman Calvin Ball (from the Baltimore Sun):

“We’ve done an exercise in planning and forethought that will facilitate an open process,”

So, even making allowances for Chairman Ball to withdraw any of the three bills that he has introduced, you may want to plan for a long night and set aside Tuesday afternoon to boot.

The list of appointments is below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in County Council, Ed C, Howard County, Zoning | 1 Comment »

WCI Tower Begins

Posted by David Keelan on Sunday, August 12, 2007

According to Melissa Harris’ article in the Baltimore Sun.

County Executive Ken Ulman vowed before November’s election to oppose the tower, but his attempts to persuade WCI to select another site or shrink the building have not succeeded.

Part of the problem, he said, is that WCI obtained all the permits necessary to build last year, and the residents who filed suit won’t accept a smaller building. They don’t want the tower constructed at all, he said.

“There are so many different parties involved with so many different ideas of what should happen,” Ulman said. “I’m frustrated. I had hoped we would have been able to reach a compromise by now.”

Well Mr. Ulman, that was the probelm when you pigeon holed yourself when you pledged to stop the tower in the first place.  As an earlier commentor said:

If Ulman ends up dropping the height limit pursuit, in favor of the tower, he has broken a campaign promise. Even though the end result is what you want, you attack him for breaking a campaign pledge.  If Ulman sticks with the height restriction, then he is blindly pandering to CoFoBoBo et al, and is making decisions that are bad for business. The end result isn’t what you want, and you attack the guy for that.  Either way, the guy can’t win in your perspective.

The implication is that I am not being fair to Ken Ulman.  Well Jiminy Cricket!  He is in a no win situation and he put himself there.  My advise to Ken.  Run an honest campaign next time and you won’t find yourself in these situations.

Please refer to my earlier post “Block That Tower

Mr. Ulman hope to use the legistlative whip to bring WCI to its knees.

But Ulman said the conflict is not over. Nearby residents have not exhausted their judicial appeals, and Ulman said Sigaty plans to submit legislation this month that would limit Columbia buildings to 14 stories and apply to the tower. Sigaty did not return e-mails and phone calls to her home and office Friday.

“Because this legislation is pending, my hope is that folks will still come to the table in good faith and try to work together,” Ulman said.

Right now the count on the tower legislation is Mary Kay -v- Courtney, Calvin, Jen and Greg.  Quite frankly I don’t know where the other four stand on this issue.  However, I think Courtney and Greg will come down on the side of predictability and the rule of law.  Although I understand that Courtney is really in the middle and is up in the air and has spoken on both sides of the issue.  I will call Courtney up in the air.  Now Calvin really touts his skills and experience as a moderator so I think it will be interesting if Calvin comes out and opposes the tower.  I don’t know how he will come down.  He showed his independence with the fire tax and will in the end do the right thing even though he stood next to Ken when Ken said he would stop the tower.  WCI didn’t do anything wrong, didn’t lie, fool, or hoodwink a soul.  They followed the game book and they should be allowed to move foward.  Jen was at Ken’s press event when Ken vowed no tower too.  I don’t know if that means she will support Ken on this issue but as far as I can tell Jen will support Ken.

This is going to be an interesting battle.  Ken is going to twist arms really really hard on this one.  Mary Kay will probably twist some arms too since this was key to her campaign.  Prediction – 2 to 2 with Courtney being the tie breaker.  Then get ready for WCI to sue the County if it passes.

As Ken even said, “WCI obtained all the permits necessary to build last year…”  Why Mary Kay and Ken won’t accept that I don’t know.

Here is a question for you.  According to The Sun article:

The start of construction could have significant legal implications. Once “substantial construction” has been done, a court can’t stop the work.

Can someone define “substantial construction”?

Posted in County Council, County Executive, Howard County | 18 Comments »

Green Legislation

Posted by David Keelan on Sunday, August 12, 2007

By the way.  I was on vacation when I got the news that Ken Ulman’s “Green Legistlation” package was approved by the County Council.  Thankfully it contained enough amendements to garnish the support it required to pass the Council.

Congratulations Mr. Ulman, Mr. Feldmark, and to members of the County Council.  Also, thanks for the input from the Chamber and the HCAA that helped to clean up the original proposals.

Posted in County Council, County Executive, Howard County | Leave a Comment »

What’s the rush tell me what is happening…

Posted by David Keelan on Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Sun reportstoday on the County Council’s struggle with Ken Ulman’s Green Legislation.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, …, and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, appear interested in voting Monday on the environmental bills. [of course] But western county Republican Councilman Greg Fox is campaigning to table them….Mary Kay Sigaty and … Courtney Watson, haven’t publicly committed themselves.

“We have to work through these issues as much as we can and see what we can accomplish,” Ball said after the session.

At Watson’s urging, council members compiled 13 questions on the two commercial building bills. Ulman administration officials vowed to try to satisfy any objections with amendments and explanations.

“I’m not prepared to vote on it tonight,” Sigaty said. “I don’t know what we’ll be doing.”

Fox said he is not trying to harm the legislation but feels the council needs more time. He handed out information sheets about similar laws, including a reprint of a May 8 Fox News story about major operation problems in green municipal buildings built in Seattle.

Based on the multiple people I have spoken with about this and what I understand to be the Council’s concerns I think tabling this legislation until Sept/Oct is a good idea.  I think the legislation will unanimously pass and.  So, what is the rush and why the backoffice pressure on the Council members?  Let them work through it.  Don’t get me wrogn talking points and “myth busters” are good ways to help the Council get the facts straight but don’t bully this legislation through.

Who am I kidding.  Sigaty, Watson and Fox are not the kind of people who can be bullid.  Without those three having satisfied themselves (not each other) this will be tabled.

The council wants to get this done the right way.  I don’t want any unintended consequences so Ulman should back off and give the Council time to review, digest, and offer amendments.  Despite what the County Executive thinks he did not submit perfect legislation – how could he.  He has to satisfy 5 other people that it is perfect – that is not an easy thing.  Let the process play out.  We will all be better off for it.

Now after it is passed and Green buildings start popping up all over the County then home owners and businesses should start saving lots of money on energy costs, right?  WRONG!

Mr. O’Malley’s “consumer friendly” PSC is permitting rate coupling.  See the Sun story here.  FreeMarket discusses it here and Jim Adams comment on Freemarket’s post is worth reading.

Essentially, the more you save on electric use the less money the electric utility makes so the “consumer friendly” PSC will allow them to charge us more for transmission costs to make up the difference.  I THOUGHT THEY DEREGULATED IN MARYLAND!

So, anyway this is just more reason for the Council to table this legislation.  The cost savings these builders/owners would experience are no longer there.

Posted in County Council, County Executive, Howard County | 8 Comments »

Living Wages in Howard County

Posted by David Keelan on Thursday, June 21, 2007

Who is against providing someone a living wage raise their hand.  I don’t think we would have any takers.  I have some questions about Calvin Ball’s proposed legislation to help families afford to live in Howard County.  First it is the wrong approach and akin to putting the cart before the horse.

From the Howard County Times

Bill pushes ‘living wage’ for contract employees

Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball will file legislation this week to require many county contractors to pay a “living wage” to their employees that would be the highest of any jurisdiction in Maryland.

The bill would require contractors who do business with the county government to pay employees an hourly wage that would allow them, in a 40-hour week, to make 125 percent of the federal poverty level guideline for a family of four. This year, that would amount to about $12.41 per hour, said Ball, a Columbia Democrat.

From the Baltimore Examiner

Howard County councilman pushes living wage bill

Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball is taking steps to require county contractors to pay its workers a sufficient minimum wage — a move he calls “the right to do.”

“We should set a higher standard,” said Ball, D-District 2.

He plans to file legislation this week that would require contractors to pay employees at least 125 percent of the federal poverty line, which is about $12.41 an hour.

Granted that Calvin Ball probably had a lot more to say to the reporter (Sara Michael) than what is printed in the Examiner I am troubled by this statement.

Ball said he wasn’t aware of “many complaints” about contractor wages, but “part of our responsibility as government is to do the right thing, whether it’s 200 or 2,000 people who have indicated concern.”

Ball said the legislation would allow the county to better collect information about contractors and workers.

“There weren’t a lot of numbers I could look at and see what is going to be the exact impact,” he said.

Isn’t that the logic he used against the senior property tax cut?

More data should be found on the tax cut’s long-term impact, said Council Member Calvin Ball, D-District 2, at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Council Member Kenneth Ulman, D-District 4, said he was determined to pass the bill by the end of the month.

He said he would work with the commission to make any changes, and the three-week delay would not affect seniors’ ability to take advantage of a break next tax cycle.

I am sure the arguement will be that he still voted in favor of the tax cut in its original form, but that really isn’t the point here.  He wanted more data – but here he doesn’t apply the same standard (according to the articles).

As to whether Howard County needs this legislation when the General Assembly already passed a living wage bill this year is another question all together.  I don’t think this is going to make Howard County a more affordable place to live and help people buy a home here.  Based on full-time employment this would pay a person $25,812.80 per year less taxes. 

The legislation comes amid debate on how to tackle what advocates call an affordable housing “crisis.” The median cost of a single-family detached house in Howard in 2005 was $505,128, according to the county.

Howard County imports it’s work force and I am talking about non-governmental employers.  Is this really going to attract them to live in Howard County or just work here?  That means the increased tax revnues are only going to another jurisdiction.

There are better options to making Howard County a more affordable place to live and that starts with housing.  Increase someone’s pay to $25,800 so they can buy what?  So they can buy a $505,000 house?  If a person at this income level is willing to take on an aggressive mortgage they could afford an $80,000 house.  If they have two incomes then they could afford a $160,000 house.  I am not including other household expenses in that equation either so it is likely the target audience would not be able to afford a house in those price ranges either.  How many houses in that price range exist in Howard County?  A search at realtor.com for Columbia showed 11 houses in that price range.  An expanded search for all of Howard County showed 13 properties.  We have demand but no supply.

Fix the supply problem first.  Put the horse in front of the cart.

In any event, the new wage will be paid for by Howard County Government (you and me).  It is a government subsidy and a wealth redistribution program and I say that in part based upon the exclusions proposed in the legislation

Contractors with four or fewer employees, nonprofit organizations and public utility contractors under cooperative agreements with another government or organization would be exempt from the law.

Are nonprofits special?  Does this mean that a public utility contractor doing business with the State only has to pay the State rate of $11.30 per hour?  Why aren’t they as valuable of a work force?

Yes, it will increase the cost of Government – but we don’t have the data to know how much.  The next quote I would like to read from Chairman Ball would be this:

More data should be found on the wage increases’ long-term impact on County budgets and housing affordability, said Council Member Calvin Ball, D-District 2, at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Posted in County Council, Howard County | 21 Comments »

Constant Yield Tax Rate – Public Meeting

Posted by David Keelan on Monday, May 7, 2007

How many people understand that Howard County exceeds the State’s Contstant Yield Tax Rate  (CYTR)?

The CYTR is a State law that prohibits local government from setting the property tax rate at a level that will generate revenues that exceed the previous years property tax revenues.

From the State Department of Assesments and Taxation

The Constant Yield concept is that, as assessments rise, the tax rate should drop to the point that the revenue derived from the property tax stays at a constant level from one year to the next, thus assuring a “constant yield” from this tax source. The Constant Yield Tax Rate is simply a property tax rate that, when applied to new assessments, will result in the taxing authority receiving the same revenue in the coming taxable year that was produced in the prior taxable year.

That does not happen in Howard County. Howard County doesn’t have to follow the provisions of the CYTR and has not for quite some time.  The County Executive and the County Council can raise the property tax rate above the CYTR if they choose.

Here are the rates mailed to the County Governments in February.

http://www.dat.state.md.us/sdatweb/stats/cytr.htm

What this basically tells you is that Howard County will take in $20.7M more in additional revenues based on the increase in assessed values of our personal property.  If they wanted to keep it neutral they could – they choose not to.

This is an escallating revenue stream to the county and an escallating tax increase to the tax payer.  Why?  Because the tax increase to the tax payer is capped to 5% every year and will continue to rise until the fully assessed tax in phased in (in the mean time our properties will be re-assessed which will likely result in even higher taxes).  So, the County has a built in tax increase.  This tax increase represents 25% of the proposed operating budget increases of $78.4M.  The rest of the budget funding increases come from improved income tax revenues and other sources.  In other words.  If the County set the property tax rate at the CYTR the County would still be able to fund an 8% budget increase.

This brings into question the need for the 30% tax increase in 2003 and the increase in the fire tax.  Mr. Ulman is proposing a whopping budget increase based on projected revenues and a looming property tax increase in the context of the CYTR.  They have a built in tax increase in terms of assessments on property taxes, and they constanty raise the property tax rate above the CYTR every year.  This is not government living within it’s means.

Again from the SDAT:

Although setting of the local property tax rates is the task of elected officials, Maryland’s Constant Yield Tax Rate Provision gives property owners a voice in the process before the final tax rates are determined. This is done by requiring each taxing jurisdiction to give advance notice and hold public meetings prior to the rate setting if they are considering a tax rate higher than the Constant Yield Tax Rate. Most meetings are held during April, May and early June. Tax rates must be set by July 1, which is the beginning of the tax year.

Can anyone on this list tell me if they ever attended such a public meeting?

If not you have your chance tonight at 7PM at the George Howard Building.

Posted in County Council, County Executive, General, Howard County | 3 Comments »

The Signs Are A-Changing? – Proposal To Modify Zoning Signs

Posted by Ed C on Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Examiner highlights a proposal by Greg Fox (R-District 5) in Official aims to make meeting details more accessible to county residents.

Fox’s proposed measure would make the signs smaller, color-coded and include a large code in the top left corner, identifying the project. Residents can enter that code into the county’s Web site to find out information on the meeting and track the development plans, he said.

This seems like a simple and welcome change to make information easier to get. I wonder if it would be feasible to add a requirement to have information sheets available at the sign – similar to the “take one” mailboxes that Realtors currently use.

Making the case number prominently displayed on the signs and an obvious way to enter that information into the County’s web site is one thing, but being able to take a sheet with the same information and listing the URL for additional information could also be useful.

Posted in County Council, Ed C, Fox, Howard County | Leave a Comment »