Howard's state legislators like the idea of establishing an independent county economic development authority, but they say legislation to convert the county Department of Economic Development needs work before being introduced in the General Assembly.
The county delegation meets Jan. 27 in Annapolis to discuss and possibly vote on local legislation, including the bill proposed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker to establish a quasi-governmental organization called the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
Creating a public-private authority would give the county's economic development agency more flexibility in competing to attract companies and promote business expansions, say legislators and representatives of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce.
Del. Martin G. Madden, R-13B, said the authority would be similar to one that has been effective in Prince George's County that uses public and private money.
"There might be some reluctance to devote taxpayer funds in these times," said Mr. Madden, whose district includes portions of Howard and Prince George's counties. "If private funds could be raised to finance a team of economic supporters to go on a recruiting trip, they could go ahead."
The General Assembly bill would enable the authority to be created, but the County Council would have to pass its own legislation to complete the change.
Sen. Thomas M. Yeager, D-13th, said economic development efforts should be stepped up because of increased competition among jurisdictions. The county government, which had been able to rely on the Rouse Co. to market Columbia as it developed, should now shoulder more burden, he said.
"The concept is timely and certainly has merit," he said.
The bill would create a nine-member board that would promote economic development, encourage expansion of the job base, seek new industry, and assist in retaining existing businesses and increasing commerce. Board members would not be paid but would be reimbursed for expenses.
Under the draft bill, four board members would be appointed by the county executive, four by the County Council and one by the Chamber of Commerce.
Board members "shall be selected for known leadership, experience and interest in the economic well-being of the county," the draft states. Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, R-14th, wants fewer limits on the pool of prospects.
Mr. Yeager agrees, saying that the "average citizen concerned about growth and the type of industry" should be able to qualify for the board.
Mr. McCabe also supports allowing the county executive to appoint all board members because "he's the one most accountable, with the greatest view of all constituencies."
An executive director of the authority, who would be paid, would be nominated by the county executive and could be removed by the county executive or the board. The board could employ a paid staff.
Mr. Yeager said he has several concerns about the bill's language. The authority would have 20 enumerated powers -- "too much power" if not put into context, he said.
The bill should stipulate that the powers extend only so far as to carry out "day-to-day operations" assigned to the authority, he said.
For instance, the authority would have the power to purchase property, but should not be allowed to do so for speculative purposes, he said.
Also, the bill should stipulate that the authority would pursue an economic development plan within the confines of the county's zoning plan, development goals and land use regulations, Mr. Yeager said.
"I don't want the group to be pressuring the Zoning Board for zoning changes," he said.
The Chamber of Commerce and county Economic Development Director William H. Howard Jr. support the proposal because it would expand sources of funding and because it would remove economic development efforts from the uncertainties of politics.
"In years past, administrations have changed and there's been a lack of continuity," said Lynn Robeson, the chamber's chairwoman for local legislative issues.