The county's successful farmland preservation program may be radically altered and could be scrapped altogether because of the county's economic crisis.
Delegate Virginia M. Thomas, D-13A, said yesterdaythat she will propose emergency legislation giving County Executive Charles I. Ecker the power to divert up to 50 percent of the $13.4 million farmland preservation fund to other uses over the next two years.
The move matches exactly what County Council member Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, had called for in a council work session the previous night.
Pendergrass, arguing against the county buying the development rights of a parcel of more than 50 acres on Ten Oaks Road, said thecounty needed "to look at the big picture" now that it is facing a $9.5 million deficit in an already austere budget.
"I don't want toscrap the program," Pendergrass said, "but I do want us to look at all our options in an emergency situation. I don't know how much we will take advantage of the opportunity" to use the preservation money, but "we need all the choices we can get. This is helpful as another possibility."
Pendergrass, who said it was incredible that Thomas proposed the fund transfer the night after Pendergrass said the countymight need the money, wants one amendment. She wants to make Ecker'suse of the fund contingent upon the approval of the council.
Ecker, who learned of the Thomas proposal when asked about it by a reporter, said the transfer bill is "a good, short-term Band-Aid," but may not solve long-term problems.
Thomas' bill would allow Ecker to take 50 percent of the fund balance Jan. 1 and apply it wherever the money is needed during the next 18 months.
According to projections Budget Director Ray Wacks gave the council Monday, the Jan. 1 balancewould be to $12.6 million.
According to Wacks' projections, the fund would grow to almost $17 million this year before money was siphoned off to buy development rights. If the bill passes, Ecker would beable to withdraw $6 million to $8.5 million from the fund, dependingon whether the county goes ahead with its aggressive purchases.
"We're still looking at preserving farmland and preserving farmers," Ecker said. "The money is going to run out in a year or two anyway. Itis a valuable program. If this bill passes, we'll have to look at our priorities. If farmland is still high priority compared to everything else, we won't take the money. If not, we will. I really don't know yet."
Thomas said she did not believe her bill would have a negative impact on farmland preservation because the county is spending less than 10 percent of what it has in the fund each year.
The reason the county has so much money in the fund is that it is buying development rights on the installment plan. After negotiating a price with the landowner, the county agrees to pay that price in a lump sum atthe end of 30 years. In the meantime, the landowner receives twice-yearly interest payments tax-free.
The fund, which is replenished each year by a portion of the transfer tax, is used to pay the interest and purchase federal government bonds that when they mature, will equal the purchase price.
Meanwhile, "there is a pot of money sitting there, and we need to tap into it so we don't do away with basic, essential services where people will be hurt," Thomas said.
Even if it uses the funds, the county would still have to trim its budget "but not to the point of endangering the health and safety of the public," Thomas said.
Thomas said she came up with the idea of making the fund available for other purposes after watching a cable-cast of a County Council hearing last week. During that hearing, Wayne Albrecht of Ellicott City called the preservation program a welfare programfor the rich and suggested the money be put to other uses.
When that idea was brought up again at the council work session Monday, council member Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, objected, saying, "Anyone who sells development rights to the county is making a sacrifice. We're notmaking people rich."
Earlier this year, the council met with the preservation board to review the criteria for accepting property. Some council members felt the criteria were too permissive and the county was paying too much for easements.
But until now, the council had not turned down an applicant the preservation board had accepted. On Monday, the council tentatively agreed not to include the roughly 50 acres of Henry Marshall and his family into the program.
"I feelsorry in this case," said council member Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, "because it technically met the criteria" for inclusion into the program.
The problem for Farragut and Pendergrass is that the property was small and isolated from other properties. Both said they want the program to focus on larger properties only from now on.