Robey hears budget pleas

Majority at hearing urges construction of 12th high school

Crowd backs higher taxes

Community college seeks $20 million for classroom building

School needs dominate budget hearing

March 13, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive James N. Robey knew instinctively what to do at last night's annual budget hearing when he saw dozens of cute children wearing placards and carrying balloons promoting construction of a $41 million, 12th high school.

"Come down right now with your balloons so that everybody can see," Robey beckoned, knowing that the hearing was being broadcast live over the county's cable television station.

"Now say 12th high school!" Robey instructed the children, who got a brief moment of fame. Their parents smiled approvingly.

Robey has said he hasn't decided if the school is needed, or if the county can afford to build it, but, he apparently figured, a speech about fiscal realities wasn't what was called for at the hearing in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

The well-organized Citizens Committee for a 12th High School dominated the crowd of about 250 people, who sought to influence Robey to fund their pet projects. They made clear they are willing to pay higher taxes for better schools.

The second-largest group pushed for a $20 million instructional building for Howard Community College, which, advocates pointed out, has an enrollment nearly equal to half the entire public school system.

Robey faces some difficult decisions before he presents his budget to the County Council next month.

With predictions of slower revenue growth starting next year, the county's education request alone is $281 million, $32.8 million more than this year's. Total budget requests are $536.5 million, nearly 11 percent higher than this year's and $22 million higher than the county's projected income.

Several County Council members said last week they think Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, is too conservative and that more money will be available than he has projected. Even that, they concede, won't make up the bulk of the difference between the requests and the county's income.

Virtually all the increased revenues will be needed just to pay for built-in pay raises and expected increases in health insurance for county employees, putting plans for more police and teachers and new programs in doubt.

But the crowd last night wanted more spending, not less.

Steve Fine of Columbia, president of the Howard County chapter of the Autism Society of America, urged the county to directly employ one-on-one aides who are vital for autistic children to be included in classwork and activities. Now, the aides work for a private contractor who pays no benefits, and the jobs turn over often or go begging. The schools have requested money to directly employ the aides for $8.50 an hour and give them benefits.

Speaking of all the budget requests, Fine said, "There's no way you're going to meet all the needs. There's only one real solution to this problem and that's to raise taxes."

Virtually the entire crowd stood to demonstrate support for higher county taxes.

Led by Courtney Watson and Cindy Ardinger, both of Ellicott City, the 12th-high-school supporters were the first to sign up as speakers and fervidly made their points.

Watson told Robey her group has worked to help him get the money for the new school by meeting with state legislators and county and state school officials, and by sending 300 letters to Gov. Parris N. Glendening seeking more school construction funding.

"It is time for our business community and our development community to stand up and say Howard County public schools are their best marketing tool. We cannot have it both ways - continue development but delay the schools," Watson said.

Ardinger spoke about crowded high schools denying youngsters the chance to compete on athletic teams, and finally asked her backers to stand to show support. Nearly the entire crowd stood up.

And bringing the children and balloons "is no cheap emotional ploy or an attempt to grab attention," said parent and organizer Janet Gilbert. "They [children] gently remind us of why we're not spending a vacation in Waikiki or buying a new car or getting the basement finished," she said.

Robey and the County Council are loathe to increase taxes, they have said.

After Robey presents his budget, the council has until June to make final cuts or changes and set a new tax rate for the budget year that starts July 1.

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