Delegates Offer Dueling Deficit-reduction Plans

November 10, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Members of the county's General Assembly delegation have come up with competing plans to help ease the county's financial crisis.

Delegate Robert L. Flanagan, R-14B, wants to remove restrictions placed on the county portion of the state transfer tax and deposit that money-- approximately $12 million a year -- directly into the general fund.

Earlier, Delegate Virginia M. Thomas, D-13A, proposed a plan to allow County Executive Charles I. Ecker to take up to $8 million -- half of the county farmland preservation fund balance as of Jan. 1, 1992 -- and use it for other purposes over the next 18 months.

The county portion of the transfer tax is split five ways. The farmland preservation fund receives 25 percent to acquire new property, the school board gets 25 percent for school construction and to acquire new school sites, the recreation and parks department receives 25 percent to purchase land and develop parks, the county housing and community development board gets 12.5 percent for seed money and to pay debt service for low income housing projects, and the fire service receives 12.5 percent for the purchase of new equipment.

Part of the difficulty the county has in dealing with its financial crisis, Flanagan said, is that it is "locked into funding formulas over a decade old." His said his bill would do away with those formulas.

Flanagan drafted his bill following a conversation with Ecker about the Thomas bill.Ecker said the problem with the Thomas bill is that it "helps today but not tomorrow. We need to look long term."

School Board Chairwoman Deborah D. Kendig said the Flanagan proposal would be "a disasterfor us. We rely on (the transfer tax) for school construction.

"It has made a difference," she said. "With the rapid growth occurring in the county, this would be a horrible thing to do to us."

Although the school board has yet to take a position on either bill, Kendigsaid she will be present Nov. 20 either as a private citizen or as arepresentative of the school board to argue against the Flanagan proposal.

Developer John Brandenburg, a staunch affordable housing advocate whose Columbia Housing Corp. provides low-income housing for the poor, said he too is "very concerned" about the Flanagan proposal.

"On the whole, affordable housing for low-income families is grossly under-funded" in the county, Brandenburg said. "To eliminate the one source of dedicated funds would create a severe negative impact on affordable housing both for the county and for Columbia Housing."

Since the Thomas and Flanagan bills were filed late, they were excluded from discussion at a public hearing the delegation conducted last week. Both will be taken up at a Nov. 20 public hearing prior to a delegation work session to decide which bills it will support in January.

Unaware of the delay on the bills, a crowd of more than 270 people, most of them teachers, packed the delegation's hearing room last Thursday to voice support for the Thomas proposal.

Thomas told the crowd her bill would provide a "stop-gap, Band-Aid, call-it what-you-want" measure to help the county executive deal with the county'sbudget shortage.

Flanagan did not speak on either bill during thehearing. "She said hers is a Band-Aid proposal and indeed it is," hesaid afterward. "My proposal is preferable in that it creates a permanent revenue stream that will enable the county to make long-range decisions about how its priorities should be set."

Opponents of theThomas bill say it will severely cripple the preservation program.

Thomas believes otherwise. "I feel confident from the research I'vedone that it will not hurt the program," she said at Thursday night's hearing.

When debating her bill earlier in the week, she was told that it might hurt the image of the program, Thomas said.

"You've got to weigh image against real need" -- whether the county is facing a health and safety problem because of a lack of money, she said.

Ridgely Jones, whose family has farmed the same land in Howard County since before the Revolutionary War, said that while he agreed that the farmland preservation program could benefit from scrutiny, the Thomas bill could nonetheless have a chilling effect on farmers stillweighing the merits of the program.

Jones, whose farm is already in the program, said he has spent years trying to get local farmers to join the program.

"It's very hard to get them in," he said, because "people who put their property in the program in most cases take a heavy loss" compared to what they could get if they sold their landto developers.

Thomas underscored the fact that her bill would allow, not require, the executive to take the farmland money. She said the county would have the option of repaying the money at a later date.

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