Budget bust follows boom in growth '80s suburban sprawl is drain on schools, services in 1990s

'Hangover' after a 'party'

New home must cost $300,000 before taxes offset drain on budget

February 24, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Few know the ups and downs of suburban growth like Raymond S. Wacks. As Howard County's budget chief for 20 years, he has watched the development boom of the 1980s swell county coffers -- and then drive Howard deep into debt.

"The '80s was the party," Wacks says. "The '90s is the hangover."

Until recently, battles over growth focused on such issues as environmental degradation and quality of life. But in fast-growing suburbs in Maryland and all over the country, the numbers are in: Sprawl busts budgets.

That's a key argument behind Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth plan to revitalize urban areas and harness the sprawling, unfocused growth common in such suburban areas as Howard.

Well into the 1990s, Howard is a lesson in the costs of sprawl.

The county's schools are overflowing into portable classrooms, fees for public services are rising, and Howard's debt -- already the highest per-capita in Maryland -- is soaring higher. Pressure is building for a tax increase.

Growth experts say the pattern has been repeated in suburbs coast to coast: Fast development creates jobs, boosts property values and brings such a surge in tax receipts that it seems possible to keep up with demand for new roads, schools, parks and police.

A few years later, when the first bulge of new students enrolls in local schools, the fiscal trap of sprawl becomes clear: Most homes cost far more in services than they generate in taxes.

The American Farmland Trust of Washington has tracked dozens of studies measuring the costs for governments of farmland and open space, as well as commercial, industrial and residential areas. Only homes don't pay their way.

In similar studies, Howard planning officials found that a single-family home must be worth about $300,000 for its taxes to offset the public services its residents use.

High demand for services

"People demand a lot in public services," says Julia Freedgood of American Farmland Trust, "and it appears that the more people who appear, the more they start demanding."

Thanks to having one of the highest per-capita incomes in the nation, Howard County can handle the growing pains better than many other areas.

By most accounts, County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, has been effective at maintaining services while squeezing the county's budget. Bond-rating agencies generally give Howard their highest ratings.

But rapid suburban growth -- combined with slower revenue growth during the recession of the early 1990s -- has strained even Howard's budget.

Last year, Ecker imposed a $125 trash fee on homeowners. In the past month, two county residents committees have recommended similar fees or new taxes to pay for storm water management improvements, cleanup at the county's landfills and other expenses.

One of the committees warned that Howard's huge borrowing -- mostly devoted to keeping up with growth -- has left the county "mortgage poor" with little cash to maintain services and deal with crises.

"Howard County [is] like the homeowner who, after paying his or her mortgage and buying groceries, has no money left," says Steve Sachs, the committee chairman.

"For the county government, the bond debt service is our mortgage. And the education budget is our food bill," Sachs said.

School construction binge

From 1986 to 1996, enrollment in Howard's schools grew more than 50 percent, from 25,600 to 38,900 pupils. School officials predict it will peak at 46,500 in 2005 -- for an 82 percent increase in less than 20 years.

To accommodate so many new students, Howard County has poured $178 million into a school-construction binge. Since 1986, the county has built 17 schools and done renovations or additions at almost every other school.

School officials say they need to spend another $140 million before the construction boom ends in six years.

In the decade since the aggressive school building began, Howard's debt has tripled, from $130 million in 1987 to $384 million in 1997. That's about $1,650 of county debt for each of Howard's 228,000 residents.

During the 1980s -- when Howard's property tax base was growing by more than 10 percent a year -- that sort of construction schedule may have seemed manageable. But as the region's and Howard's economy cooled, the students kept coming. Nearly everything else in county government -- and even some school programs -- has suffered.

"In Howard County, people became used to the school system instituting new programs," says schools budget officer David White. "Since 1991, there's been hardly any of that."

Lunch in the halls

New students came so fast that even some new schools -- such as Pointers Run Elementary in Columbia's River Hill village -- quickly became overenrolled, their students spilling out into portable classrooms.

Before two new high schools opened last fall, some lunchrooms were so crowded that students ate in hallways. In some middle schools, students have been prohibited from opening locker doors during busy times.

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