Pay increases promised, but no new taxes

Robey to give teachers raises

also to hire more police, firefighters

`Good fortune continues'

January 21, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive James N. Robey told a Chamber of Commerce lunch crowd yesterday that he will provide money for higher teacher salaries and more police and firefighters next year, but he won't raise income or property taxes, including the fire tax.

"Our economic good fortune continues this year," Robey told the group at a Columbia hotel. "I have the pleasure of serving as executive during the time of a robust national economy that seems like it will never end. Capital gains are growing by astonishing amounts."

He predicted a county surplus at least equal to this year's $26 million.

Robey offered no specifics, saying only that he would hire more than the six police officers he allowed this year, and he expected pay raises for school workers to add $8 million to $11 million to the $20.2 million in county funds the schools superintendent has requested.

Robey said he wants teacher salaries -- 10th in the state for starting pay -- to be more competitive. To that end, he said, he will fund whatever pay raise the teachers negotiate with the school board. Despite that, and the good economic times, he said, the county can't afford all the budget requests.

"If Jim is making a commitment, that is very positive," said Joseph Staub, president of the Teachers Association of Howard County, which is negotiating a contract with the school board.

The county executive noted the good economic times in declaring that he would not raise taxes.

"Thanks to our strong economy, I will be proposing no new taxes this year," Robey told the gathering. However, he said that water and sewerage fees might have to be adjusted, because utilities in the county are self-supporting.

Despite his declaration of no tax increases, not everyone in the audience was cheering.

"It's easy to say, with a $26 million surplus. Gee, thanks. That should go without saying," said County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

A tax cut might be more appropriate, Merdon said.

But Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said Robey, a Democrat, is making up for years of doing without under former County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican.

If Republicans want to cut taxes or spending, they "can go out and buy the rest of these front-end loaders and fix roads and bridges," Lorsung said. "Ecker said we were doing more with less, but we were doing less with less, but in places people couldn't see."

Robey told the crowd that after decades of fast growth, and despite robust economic development, the county is getting older and must deal with the changes.

"Folks, we have reached middle age, and many of you out there know well the aches and pains that it brings," he said. "We are beginning to feel the symptoms of the same aging conditions that other older jurisdictions have wrestled with for years."

From complaints about middle-class and white flight from older schools, to highly publicized crimes such as the killings of two young men in Columbia last year, Howard is facing "the very dynamics that, if left unattended, can set into motion a dangerous change in the perception of the overall quality of life our county has to offer," he said.

To combat such changes, Robey plans to hire a planner to work exclusively on revitalization of older areas, especially the U.S. 1 corridor, committing $50,000 for a consultant, if needed. Money also would be provided to fix neglected infrastructure and replace old equipment and county facilities. A major theme of the new county General Plan, which is under development, is preserving older neighborhoods.

At the same time, Robey said, he will commit sufficient money to buy development rights on another 2,500 acres of farmland. Robey lamented that people often don't understand the county's development process and his role in it.

He talked about coming out of a bagel shop after breakfast one morning and hearing someone say, "Well, there he goes, the developers' friend."

Robey said the remark made him angry, then sad, at what he felt was "the lack of understanding that people have." People don't understand, he said, that he cannot stop development in Howard County.

"We can manage growth, direct the pace of it and even say what type of development can occur, but we cannot stop it," he said. "Growth is inevitable."

Again, Merdon was critical. People who oppose over-development "have a very good understanding of growth," the councilman said. "To me it [Robey's comment] is an insult to people who are passionate about it."

Merdon said he hasn't seen Robey propose any new growth control laws outside the revision of county rules controlling development of homes around crowded elementary schools.

"Manage growth?" he said. "In what way?"

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