Some small comfort amid the crowding Howard population grows more slowly, but still taxes services

March 12, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Howard County -- the Baltimore region's growth champion during the 1970s and 1980s -- is finally getting a break. But not much of one.

U.S. Census Bureau figures released last week show that the county's population increased by 31,800 from 1990 to 1995, in sharp contrast to the population boom of 45,100 in the previous five years.

But even that more modest growth rate threatens to overwhelm county schools, roads, parks and services.

Last week, the county executive said he was 90 percent sure he would not fund required state increases in education. In January, he proposed a four-bag per week limit on garbage collection -- and the County Council urged even stricter limits.

After 25 years of rapid population growth -- and a flat economy in recent years -- Howard is feeling the pain.

"We're trying to hold our own until the economy does get a little better," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Council Chairman Darrel Drown agreed.

"One day the economy will turn around and we'll be in good shape," he said. "Until it does, we'll just have to grin and bear it."

In happier times, government services for Howard's population -- which grew by 90 percent in the 1970s and 58 percent in the 1980s -- were subsidized in large part by taxes on businesses. Overall, tax revenue grew by up to 20 percent a year back then.

But today's revenue growth -- about 2 percent to 4 percent annually -- has not kept pace with residential growth. As a result, officials are scrambling to lure retail stores and large office buildings to the county.

Meanwhile, two other factors have made the recent 31,800-resident gain in population feel even more severe, say school and planning officials.

School enrollment up

For one thing, school enrollment is rising more than total population.

It is projected to grow by 4 percent over the next three years, a pace that would boost the 37,500-student enrollment by an additional 10,500 students by the year 2006.

"The baby boomers' kids are coming to school," Mr. Drown said.

The county has been forced to cope with such growth for the past 10 years, said schools planner Maurice Kalin. In comparison, enrollment grew more slowly and even declined some years during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A second factor -- which is much in dispute -- has to with costs associated with suburban sprawl in Howard. As the population spreads out from Columbia, the theory goes, it costs more to provide government services.

"Our way of life, spread out, is fairly expensive," said Michel A. Lettre, assistant director of the Maryland Office of Planning, speaking of a general trend in Maryland.

Mr. Lettre, who credits Columbia for slowing some of the sprawl that has burdened other counties, nevertheless cites snow removal as a classic example of higher costs in Howard.

The Howard government faces pressure to plow roads for suburbanites in western Howard, said Mr. Lettre. Unlike the farmers who lived there 20 years ago, they demand immediate services from their government.

Rising expenses

Sprawl also means more bus expenses for schools, and higher water and sewer expenses.

"It's more expensive for Howard County to serve its residents than Baltimore City," said Anirban Basu, an economist with the Regional Economic Studies Program.

But Howard County planners say they have checked growth as much as possible -- particularly in the western part of the county. Farmers in the west should have the right to sell their property to developers, they argue.

Also, in the Ellicott City and Elkridge area, county officials have stopped all development until roads and schools in the area can catch up. Seven projects are in the pipeline, according to the county planning department.

The result is what they consider a successful managed growth program.

"I'd have to give our county pretty much a B-plus or an A," said Planning Board Chairman Ted Mariani.

'A real struggle'

Howard's planning policies may seem more stringent than its neighbor to the north, Carroll County. In Carroll, county planner Jeanne Joiner said there still is too much development in Carroll's agricultural areas.

"It's been a real struggle for the county government to keep up with the growth," she said.

In Howard, Mr. Ecker's approach thus far has been to manage growth while trying to bring in more businesses. And that's not good for Baltimore City, said Mr. Basu, the regional economist.

He said a familiar pattern is repeated in suburban counties around Baltimore: People move to the suburbs. They spread out and demand more services. The suburbs lure Baltimore business, so their tax revenues can support all the new services.

But Richard Story, head of the Howard County Department of Economic Development, said: "We would never take the first step to encourage a business to leave its jurisdiction."

He said that when the county is contacted by a business interested in relocating, he then notifies the business' home county, in addition to providing services to the business.

In all, county officials believe their planning policies put them in a good position to ride out the continued growth.

"I think we're a lot better off than a lot of counties," said Mr. Ecker.

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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