Robey budget gets GOP nod before council

Public hearing focuses on a proposed park for North Laurel

`Seems like responsible budget'

$824 million blueprint to draw money from the Rainy Day Fund

Howard County

April 24, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A community divided over whether Howard County should build a small park along the Patuxent River in North Laurel - in 2004 - dominated a County Council hearing on the proposed 2003 capital budget last night.

An irony involving a more current event was also evident.

Before the annual hearing, County Executive James N. Robey formally presented his $824 million proposed operating budget to the five council members, as Republican executive candidate Steven H. Adler watched from the sparsely occupied seats in the George Howard Building council chamber.

The two men are likely opponents in November's elections, and Adler has strongly criticized Robey for a looming budget shortfall.

But after Robey finished speaking, Adler heard the Democrat's budget praised by Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

"I want to congratulate you and your staff for a job well done. It seems like a responsible budget," Merdon said to Robey, renewing a pledge not to contribute to any public bickering over this election year budget's adoption.

Seven of the nine speakers at the hearing talked about development of the proposed High Ridge Park, even though the capital budget on which the council must vote by June contains no money for the project.

The budget does propose spending $938,000 the following year to begin converting 10 acres of the 95-acre parcel to two 40-car parking lots and paved courts for tennis and basketball.

Representatives of the North Laurel Civic Association and others came to speak for the park, claiming that area children have waited for decades to have a nice play to play.

Immediate neighbors of the parkland urged delay, saying a park would provide only a haven for drug dealers and trash dumpers.

"What other city has absolutely no parks? None?" asked Donna Thewes, who said she has been working to get this one for 14 years. "By the time anything is built, my youngest [child] will be in college," she said.

But Linda Ann Lewis, who lives on Fairview Avenue near the proposed park's entrance, said she had 42 signatures on a petition opposing the park.

"High Ridge is special land," she said. "The land is virgin woods providing habitat to a multitude of creatures. Our children will be better served with a passive park."

The county is buying land near Laurel Woods Elementary School for another small park, but is having trouble negotiating with owners of 13 remaining lots it needs.

A plan to build at High Ridge was scuttled in 1993 by neighborhood opposition, but Gary Arthur, the county's director of recreation and parks, said much of the community now supports the plan.

School budget issues - operating and capital - will be discussed at a hearing May 4 in the council chambers.

The county's operating and capital budgets are under pressure this year from recession-driven revenue decreases.

Robey expects to use up to $15 million of the county's Rainy Day Fund to balance this year's budget after a shortfall in revenues became more severe than predicted last spring.

Similarly, the capital budget is suffering from a lack of surplus cash that over the past three years pumped $72 million into one-time capital projects.

Howard County has a law requiring one-time surpluses to be used for capital budget projects - not long-term operating budget programs.

Robey's capital budget proposal is to spend $97.1 million next fiscal year, with roughly half the money raised by selling $48.9 million worth of new municipal bonds - just under the $50 million ceiling recommended by the county's Spending Affordability Committee.

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