The new leadership outlines its aims Democrats place development, schools, safety at top of agenda

November 09, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

When Democrats take over Howard County government next month, they likely will spend more money on public safety and education, cut no taxes next year and try to slow home building, especially at a 507-acre development coming to southern Howard County, Executive-elect James N. Robey and County Council victors said in interviews last week.

Their agenda is a break from the past couple of years, when the Republican-led County Council rejected a pension increase for police officers, passed a schools budget that disappointed educators, cut the income tax and speeded up a Rouse Co. plan for a Columbia-style village in North Laurel.

Now Democrats want to increase pay and possibly benefits for police officers, spend more money on schools and hold the line on taxes.

"We've made commitments, we've made promises to the people, and we have to deliver on those promises," Robey said.

Robey, a former police chief, said that, during his four-year term, he intends to follow through on his promise to improve salaries for police officers and may also boost the officers' 20-year retirement benefit, which he has called inadequate.

Combined with an increased commitment to education, also a campaign promise, this new government spending could put pressure on the budget -- already burdened with debt from 15 years of building schools and roads to accommodate growth -- if tax revenues slip in the next few years. Robey has said he would not rule out raising taxes if necessary, but he said after the election he would not increase taxes "unless things really fall apart" financially.

Robey should have support from the new, Democratic-controlled County Council. All three Democrats criticized a 4 percent cut in the county's piggyback income tax rate passed this year, saying that the revenue should have gone to education, and they are expected to support increased spending for police.

Not all the changes will come from a monolithic Democratic majority. Just as Republicans on the outgoing council sometimes disagreed with each other and with GOP County Executive Charles I. Ecker, the Democrats aren't expected to agree on all initiatives.

Republican council winners Allan H. Kittleman of District 5 and Christopher J. Merdon of District 1 could play key roles in shaping policy on slowing residential growth. Kittleman, Merdon and Democratic Councilman-elect Guy Guzzone of District 3 were the most vocal council candidates on the issue of growth during the campaign, touting proposals to curb school crowding and traffic congestion.

The council, which also sits as the Zoning Board, appears to have moved solidly in the direction of slowing home building with the election of the two Republicans and Guzzone. Merdon, of Ellicott City, succeeds Republican Darrel E. Drown, who won two terms on a message of managing growth better but in recent years voted in favor of several controversial developments. Drown chose not to run for re-election this year.

Kittleman, of western Howard, succeeds Republican Charles C. Feaga, a champion of property rights and a consistent pro-developer vote who ran unsuccessfully for county executive this year.

Guzzone, of Kings Contrivance, will succeed Republican Dennis Schrader, who also ran unsuccessfully for county executive. Schrader opposed several controversial projects in the past year as he campaigned on a platform of managing residential growth better, but in some respects, Guzzone offered more specific proposals on slowing home building.

"I feel more comfortable with this [new council]," said Peter J. Oswald, past president of the Greater Beaufort Park Citizens Association and an ardent opponent of a proposed 1,168-home development on the 507-acre Iager Farm property in Fulton.

Oswald said the highly anticipated changing of the guard on the council was the main reason his community association turned down a $100,000 offer and other inducements proposed this year by Iager Farm developer Stewart J. Greenebaum to drop its opposition to the project. Instead, neighborhood leaders wanted to delay the project until the next council, with three new members, could review it.

Guzzone said during his campaign that he wanted to delay the Iager Farm development, and Robey said last week he would do what he could as county executive to make sure the project didn't move forward too quickly.

As executive, Robey's greatest influence over individual projects will be through his appointed staff, who review plans, permits, environmental waivers and special exceptions. He also will have tremendous power to set broader policy, from designing the General Plan for the county's future growth to approving or rejecting legislation on development.

Several legislative proposals are likely to come up for discussion, newly elected officials say. Among them:

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