How to manage Howard's prosperity


January 30, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

DON'T just do something. Stand there!

Would that be good advice for Howard County Executive James N. Robey?

Maybe. Howard is sitting pretty. Tall clover. Salad days. Every "good times" expression you ever heard seems to apply. The temptation to assume a passive posture is overwhelming.

But the more prudent leader will say: If it ain't broke -- it could get broke. The better things look, the more likely a disaster. If there was ever a moment to indulge in forward thinking, it may be this one.

Problems of no-growth, for example. Howard County is approaching the point at which no growth is the only alternative. "Build-out" is coming, the point at which all the land suitable for development has been developed.

What will happen when the county cannot count on new revenue and new economic activity in the building industry? How much of the building capacity can be diverted into renovation of aging facilities, housing and offices? What preparations will be needed to make the county stable and ready to face less-prosperous moments or even a downturn?

Moments of trial and challenge are coming in the area of education as well. A new school superintendent is about to be hired -- just in time to address insistent questions of resource parity and the concerns of parents, some of whom are busing their children to greener educational pastures.

In their way, Mr. Robey, county planners and the school department have addressed these issues. The question is whether any of their thinking gets, as they say, "out of the box" -- into a realm of advance problem-solving. The immediate future seems almost guaranteed -- thus the luxury of being able to develop scenarios for post-build out.

The executive wants to hire a planner who would work exclusively on revitalization of older areas. He wants to find ways to preserve and renew older neighborhoods. The new man should be encouraged to think as creatively as possible.

Executives want to "Do it now!" as one of them once said. They want to show leadership and to achieve a record to run on. So the natural tendency might be to adopt some initiative, some project that will leave a mark.

The same tantalizing dilemma faces government leaders in Maryland from Gov. Parris N. Glendening on down. With the obvious exception of Mayor Martin O'Malley in Baltimore and those who run some of the state's chronically poor counties, county executives and commissions govern in the best of times.

Mr. Robey, of course, runs a county on the very crest of the national economic wave. All its well-honed virtues -- good schools, good location, job growth and tax base -- seem even more alluring. The median income in Howard stands at over $56,000 -- almost 50 percent higher than surrounding metropolitan area's median of $40,000 or so.

In his recent state of the county address to the Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Robey was able to state the obvious: No new taxes are needed. A budget surplus of $26 million is anticipated -- enough to permit him a remarkable commitment. He promised to fund whatever pay raise is negotiated by the teachers. Good times allow expansive gestures, to be sure, and welcome this one is.

Though Howard has had the Best-performing schools in the state -- notwithstanding its slip marginally to second place in recent testing -- teachers here rank 10th in pay rates, a situation which needs correcting.

It is even more untenable at a time when so many more teachers are needed in school systems. The county must be competitive or the good teachers will leave -- or not come in the first place. Good schools with motivated kids and active parents make a teacher's life livable -- but paychecks count too.

So, Mr. Robey's promise to teachers seems justified if not critical. Similarly, he plans to hire a few more policemen than he'd anticipated. And, once again, he won't have to increase taxes to make either the raises or the new hires.

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

Very welcome was his plan to buy development rights on another 2,500 acres of farmland. Good times allow banking of open space -- a fine way to use extra cash.

The executive seems to be moving prudently to deal with deferred problems such as inadequate teacher pay, deferred maintenance in some areas, more money for policing and the purchase of land for recreation and open space.

The benefits go beyond the actual improvements. The county's sense of community is enhanced. It's commitment to quality education shows where it counts, at the bottom line. (A better test even would be to pay teachers when money is not so plentiful--.)

Quality of life improves intangibly when government uses resources wisely, when problems are anticipated and inequities are acknowledged.

Good times well managed bring opportunities to reaffirm values.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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