Howard County Executive Calvin Ball proposes $304.6 million capital budget, including $52 million for schools

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Ana Faguy, The Baltimore Sun
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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball released his $304.6 million capital budget Thursday for fiscal 2022.

While that is a $54 million increase from the proposed total for fiscal 2021, there are more projects being supported by additional state or federal funding, Ball said.

The capital budget includes funding for school construction, as well as funding the expanded East Columbia 50+ Senior Center and Ellicott City Safe and Sound flood mitigation projects.

“This budget is the product of a concerted effort to deliver a sustainable and financially responsible capital plan, which supports critical infrastructure investment in the county despite challenges faced from shrinking debt capacity and economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic,” Ball wrote in a letter to the County Council announcing the budget.

Ball called education his “top priority” Thursday, proposing $52 million for the Howard County Public School System. This will be supported by $27.7 million in state aid. The money has been allocated to a new 13th high school, Talbott Springs Elementary School replacement and Hammond High School renovation.

On Wednesday, Ball announced $1 million in state funding as well as $5.5 million in county funding toward renovations of the East Columbia 50+ Senior Center. This project, which was delayed because of budget cuts in fiscal 2021, is projected to be completed in spring 2023.

Ball also allocated $6 million in county funding for the Maryland Avenue culvert expansion and final design and construction of the extended North Tunnel as part of the Safe and Sound plan. The fiscal 2022 budget proposes $89.8 million in total allocation for the plan, including a $75 million Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan from the Environmental Protection Agency and $8.9 million in state grants.

While the county is still waiting on final approval of the loan, Ball said those who are chosen to apply are funded after financial assessments are made. The funding would cover the entirety of the extended tunnel project the county announced last week.

If the county receives the funding, it can borrow up to 49% of the cost of the Safe and Sound plan. The remaining 51% would be funded by the county and through other sources. The county would not have to repay the loan until construction is complete.

Of the total $306.4 million capital budget, $72.5 million are funded by general obligation bonds. Ball said for the next six years he’s projecting general obligation bond authorization to stay in the $70 million range.

This comes a month after Howard County’s Spending Affordability Advisory Committee released its fiscal 2022 annual report, cautioning the same problem it has warned about for the past few years: Spending is outpacing revenues and debt capacity. The committee recommended the county allocate no more than $50 million in fiscal 2022, a $20 million decrease from last year’s recommendation, and again pushed to get the county to better control its debt.

According to the committee, county agencies and entities are requesting funding increases in fiscal 2022 that are equivalent to 2.3 times that of projected revenue growth. This would bring the county to what many members of the committee called a “crossroads.”

The committee makes annual recommendations to the county executive for the upcoming fiscal year on revenue projections, bond authorizations and long-term fiscal outlook. This is the third year in a row the committee’s report has warned about the county’s fiscal future.

The Howard County Council will hold a virtual public hearing on the capital budget at 6:30 p.m. April 20.

The county’s operating budget is set to be released April 19. The operating budget focuses on day-to-day running of the county and usually covers a one-year period, while the capital budget focuses on more long-term investments and infrastructure updates.