Economy slowing, Robey says

Outlook still good, chamber is told

January 19, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County is still riding the crest of the wave of national economic prosperity, County Executive James N. Robey told a packed Chamber of Commerce luncheon yesterday in Columbia. But, he indicated, the hard sand of the beach is coming up fast.

A slowing economy is raising questions about how many new buildings, pay raises and services the county can afford next year, Robey told 270 people at the annual "State of the County" speech.

That is why he did not repeat last year's pledge not to propose major tax increases, he said.

"The economy was stronger last year. The surplus was stronger. Right now, it's too early to tell," said Robey.

Otherwise, the economic outlook in the county is good, he told the gathering of the Howard chamber.

In business, Howard has won 20,000 new jobs during the past three years, led the Baltimore region in office construction for the past two years and has the lowest unemployment rate (under 2 percent) and highest average annual family income ($75,500) in the state.

Also, the county has the lowest local income tax rate in the region and has used millions of dollars in surplus cash to build elementary, middle and high schools and stock up on new equipment - from 51 pieces of snow-clearing gear to a $30 million emergency-communications system.

Homes and office space are selling like hotcakes, but Robey's natural tendency to be cautious is driving his approach to next year, he said.

"Hard lessons learned in the '90s prompt us to remain on our toes," he said. "All indicators are telling me that 2001 is the right time for us to concentrate on the basic services county government provides."

The former police chief - who turned 60 yesterday and read his vital signs (blood pressure 138/80, cholesterol 160 and vision 20-20) to show that despite being overweight, he is physically fit - said he is not uncomfortable with being thought of as a caretaker rather than a visionary.

"While `visionary' certainly sounds sexier, the vision cannot be realized without taking care of business," he said.

"In truth, a good caretaker does not merely maintain. He finds ways to invest in the present that best assures the future health and strength of that for which he cares. Within the framework of those difficult day-to-day decisions surely lies vision," he said.

Robey said he will continue keeping education as the county government's top priority, while strengthening other basic government services, such as public safety, senior centers and public works.

With slower revenue growth on the horizon, "it will be tricky, to say the least, to fully fund" large requests for more school spending and satisfy other agencies' needs.

More challenges loom, he said.

The county's "single-most critical issue" in the new 20-year General Plan, he said, "is community conservation and revitalization of older communities."

He announced a new $150,000 grant from Horizon Foundation to pay for a study on whether to locate a new multipurpose community service center along U.S. 1 - the roadway that is the county's top revitalization effort.

He also criticized a recent three-part series in The Sun on problems of crime and decay in Columbia.

He said the stories were done "in expose fashion," and he plans to speak to "top management" at The Sun about "the way the stories were handled."

The executive repeated his commitment to preserving the rural western county by buying more development rights and keeping water and sewer lines out of the area.

In addition, he staked out a middle ground on the disputed proposal to modify Route 32 from Clarksville to Interstate 70.

The State Highway Administration proposes either a widening of the two-lane road or adding partial interchanges and other safety barriers to prevent accidents.

For months, Robey has discussed his concerns about safety on the road, but he has not specified what remedy he favored.

Yesterday, he said that "simply increasing our road capacities will not solve our traffic problems. It seems the more roads we build, the more cars travel on them."

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