Friday, May 12, 2006

Budget battles...

The headline is, admittedly, overblown. I jazzed it up to convince you to read the post. Shameless, I know.

Actually, there doesn’t seem to be much battling going on this budget season; indeed, quite the opposite.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said he is prepared to support County Executive James N. Robey's operating budget "as suggested."

He said he is not going to offer an amendment to cut the income tax rate rather than the 3-cent property tax rate reduction that Robey proposed.

“It would just promote more political turmoil," Merdon said. Although chairman, Merdon now has only one other supporter on tax issues -- western county Republican Charles C. Feaga. The resignation in March of former Councilman David A. Rakes and his replacement by Calvin Ball gives Democrats a three-vote majority on the five-member council.
What? I thought we wanted political turmoil. I’ve got nothing to write about if everyone’s happy with each other. Surely, there has to be some low-level skirmish brewing somewhere.
Feaga remained angry about the way Democrats found $3 million to divert from plans for a new Columbia fire station to renovations at Clarksville Middle School.

The Democrats, he said, must have known earlier that the $3 million would not be needed next year for the Banneker Station replacement, making their rescue of the Clarksville project suspect in his mind.

"I think it's a cheap political stunt," Feaga said.

Ah, yes. There it is. Feaga’s mad that the Democrats get to look like educational saviors while the Republicans sit on their hands, failing to dig deep enough into the budget to ensure funding for overdue renovations. Maybe he’s right. But was political gain really the Democrats motivation to push for the $3 million transfer? I’m saying no, and here’s why.

Long ago, when this budget was being tossed around by county bureaucrats, there was a common perception among most of us that the citizens’ Town Center Master Plan would be finished and voted upon before this council leaves office. However, as complaints mounted, the plan was delayed to allow for further input (from a select group of citizens, known as the Focus Group). This delay meant that the future of Town Center – which will very much affect the future of the Town Center fire station – was put on hold.

With the plan in limbo until at least June of next year (the end of the fiscal year for the budget we’re currently discussing), does it really make sense to move forward with a new fire station when you don’t know where it will go or how it will fit within the as yet undetermined landscape of our new Town Center? That would just be silly, especially if the money can be used for another pressing issue, like school renovations.

The Democrats figured out after the official delay of the master plan was announced that they could make this transfer without really sacrificing anything (usually unheard of in budget transfers). They saw a great opportunity to do something good for the school and themselves, and they took it. Just as Feaga, Merdon or any other politician would have done.

None of this is to say that politics didn’t play a role; surely, Robey and crew are expecting to gain political points for this decision, as they should.

Good policy can also be good politics. Actually, the two should be the same.

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