Howard Council approves $2.16 billion operating budget, including funds for Lakefront Library

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May 26—The Howard County Council this week unanimously approved a $2.16 billion operating budget as well as a $419.1 million Capital Improvement Program for fiscal 2024 that includes funding for the Lakefront Library planned for downtown Columbia.

The council also voted unanimously to approve $5 million in funding for the conceptual design of the Lakefront Library and another $5 million for the massive library project was placed in a special contingency fund, which the council can agree to use sometime during the fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2024, under certain conditions outlined in an amendment.

"This funding will allow the county to continue work on design for the Lakefront Library project and engage in discussions with the Howard County Library System, the County Council, county residents, and all external stakeholders to determine the potential changes that may be made to the project," a news release from the county states.

The 100,000-square-foot library is estimated to cost a total of $144 million, and will be built along downtown Columbia's lakefront. Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, along with Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, unveiled plans for the library in late March.

[ 'A shining jewel': Maryland Gov. Wes Moore visits Columbia Lakefront to help announce $144M library in the works ]

Ball said the library is intended to "foster creativity, learning and civic engagement." It will include an auditorium, a literacy classroom and a digital lab, officials have said.

But the building of the library has caused pushback from residents concerned about the hefty price tag, the bidding process, and the need for a new library. Some council members were also concerned about the cost. The amendment is intended to soften the blow.

District 2 Councilman Opel Jones, who has been vocal in his support of the library, said in an interview Thursday that he is concerned the stipulations in the amendment could slow the project down.

"Nonetheless, I'm glad to see that the project is going forward," he said. "It's a huge undertaking, but we've hired a great firm, (and developers) to see it move forward."

Howard Hughes Corp. is the project's developer.

Councilmember Christina Rigby, who represents District 3, said the conditions "will keep the public engaged in the process and ensure that various elements of the project are thoughtfully considered.

"The Lakefront Library project will shape the next era of Columbia and I am thrilled that it is moving forward in a thoughtful, collaborative manner," Rigby said.

The operating budget also includes $1.2 million for the county's library system.

The bulk of the money in the operating budget — $1.1 billion — goes to Howard County Public Schools, which is set to receive a 7% increase in funds over the current fiscal budget. The funding amount is also $71.6 million above the required of maintenance of effort set by the state.

Maintenance of effort means that county governments, under state law, must spend the same amount of money per public school student from one year to the next.

The operating budget also includes $8.6 million for the Howard County Police Department, which will be used for salary increases, and safety improvements in the community. Additionally, $175,000 will go toward the storage of digital evidence needed to meet state and federal storage laws.

The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services will get $2.4 million to hire 26 new firefighter trainees.

The budget includes another $1.7 million to provide prenatal and maternal healthcare for uninsured and underinsured mothers in the county. And, $2.5 million will go toward expanding behavioral and mental health services in Howard. This funding includes $1 million for the Behavioral Health Unit at Howard General Hospital, to expand their unit with 24 additional beds.

The approved budget includes $400,000 to launch the county's first-ever Disparity Study to identify opportunity gaps in the county's procurement process with minority-owned, woman-owned, and disabled-owned local businesses.

An additional $1 million is dedicated to rental assistance to help more residents remain in their homes,

And, $12.8 million in the capital budget will go toward road resurfacing needs and preventative maintenance.

"This is the second largest investment in the past decade to support the ongoing road resurfacing needs for 1,080 miles of county roads," the news release states. The approved budget includes a dedicated $150,000 to expand bus service in Elkridge.

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Councilman David Yungmann, who represents District 5, said in an email that he is happy with how the budget season resolved.

"Budgets are never perfect because we need to balance many diverse priorities, but I believe this budget did that and I was happy to support it," he said.

Jones also said he is pleased with the overall budget, but stressed there were compromises that had to be made to move the spending plan forward for Howard County.

"It's good to see Howard County moving in the right direction," he said.