Council plans increase in tax

Proposal would raise $2.2 million more for school system

May 13, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County homeowners face an additional 2-cent property tax increase July 1 -- the key ingredient in a last-minute deal among County Council Democrats to give $2.2 million more to schools next year.

The extra local money for education was the second piece of good news yesterday for school officials, who learned that the governor approved $16 million in state school construction money for Howard -- $1 million more than the county executive budgeted.

"Sure, every million helps," joked school board President Karen B. Campbell about the extra money for building projects. Of the extra county support for classroom programs, she said, "The whole community of Howard County is pleased [the council members] value education."

The owner of a typical house in Howard would pay an extra $12 to $16 because of the 2-cent tax increase.

The partisan vote at the end of a budget work session with Campbell, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and others yesterday was organized by Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, and took the council's two Republicans by surprise.

Ellicott City's Christopher J. Merdon abstained from the straw vote, because he had too little time to think about the issue, he said, while Allan H. Kittleman, a west county Republican, voted against higher taxes. A formal council budget vote is scheduled for May 26.

"I don't want to raise taxes," Kittleman said, arguing that the council could raise what it needed for schools by cutting one-third of 1 percent from all other county departments in the proposed $683 million budget.

Both Kittleman and Merdon said they favor spending extra money on schools to achieve class-size reductions for first- and second-graders learning to read, and attain more help for special education programs and other classroom enhancements.

Nothing to cut

Guy J. Guzzone, the Laurel-Savage Democrat who pledged his support to Gray just before the budget session began, said he could find nothing to cut in County Executive James N. Robey's budget.

"They were still recouping," he said, referring to years of recessionary belt-tightening.

"In my mind, $16 to fully fund all the new initiatives in the classroom is clearly worth it," Guzzone said, referring to the extra tax a homeowner could pay.

That view was not shared by Robey, who commented after the action, "I believe in my heart that I appropriately funded the education budget this year," providing $20 million in new money for schools.

Robey did not fund $4.8 million of the education budget request, but school officials have made up $1.2 million of that amount with state and federal grants and by rebidding employee health-insurance coverage.

Gray said raising taxes and spending the money on schools is essential. "We have the No. 1 school system, but if you stand still, somebody will run over you," Gray said.

The deal he engineered would raise $1.6 million for schools by tacking 2 cents onto the 3-cent fire-tax increase proposed by Robey -- adding $500,000 shaved from capital budget planning funds for the proposed Blandair Park in Columbia, and slicing $100,000 from the county's self-insurance risk management fund payment.

Status of Blandair deal

The money for Blandair can be delayed, officials said, because a legal dispute has held up county acquisition of the 300-acre former Smith farm.

The council's cut would leave $197,000 for park planning if the purchase goes forward.

The total 5-cent tax increase, combined with an expected increase in the state property tax assessment, will cost most homeowners from $70 to $85 more on their annual tax bills, according to county budget office estimates.

The primary reason council members favored adding money for schools was to ensure that 17 elementary schools with higher concentrations of poverty among students can cut first- and second-grade class sizes to a maximum of 19 students.

Doing that, however, will eliminate 394 seats of excess classroom capacity in Columbia's older schools, further complicating plans to redistrict students from more crowded schools in the northeastern county, said Maurice Kalin, associate superintendent for planning.

Despite the controversy that traditionally accompanies redistricting, County Council members agreed it's the most sensible and least expensive way to relieve crowding. Kalin said building more schools costs taxpayers $15,000 per classroom seat, and building additions costs $8,000 a seat, while redistricting is relatively cost-free.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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