County schools focus of debate

Bissett says Owens favors capital costs over basics

Incumbent plugs her record

Candidates both see merit in cap on property taxes

Anne Arundel

October 03, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Candidates for Anne Arundel County executive laid out their plans last night for improving the county's school system, with challenger Phillip D. Bissett accusing incumbent Janet S. Owens of stressing school construction over books and other classroom supplies.

The two met at a forum at Severna Park Middle School that was sponsored by the Greater Severna Park Chamber of Commerce and Greater Severna Park Council. It was also open to candidates for the General Assembly and for the District 5 seat on the County Council.

Owens, a Democrat from Millersville who won the 1998 election against Republican County Executive John G. Gary, played up her accomplishments during the 45-minute forum, including stabilizing the county's public school system by raising teacher salaries and cutting a backlog of construction projects.

"I believe this county, unlike four years ago, is going in the right direction," Owens said.

Owens, 58, has won the endorsement of the county's teachers union. She has provided a 13 percent pay raise to educators during the past four years, action which has prevented good teachers from seeking jobs in better-paying jurisdictions, she said.

Bissett, 46, a Republican from Mayo and a state delegate from 1991 to 1998, said his administration would also focus on improving local education. But unlike the incumbent, who has been criticized by her GOP opponent for concentrating on renovations, Bissett said last night that he would work to make sure teachers had the funds they need to buy books and supplies.

"I will make a commitment to education in Anne Arundel County," Bissett said. "We will focus on teachers and students."

Later in the forum, when the subject turned to budgetary issues and scratching out new revenues in the face of a staggering state budget deficit, the candidates both said they support the county's voter-imposed tax cap, which limits growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

"I support the tax cap, and I see it as a good planning tool," said Bissett, who added that the cap has forced local elected officials to "think hard" about how to generate revenue to pay for roads and police protection.

Owens, who has been criticized by Republicans for choosing not to increase property taxes when she could have in the last budget cycle, said that the cap has forced "very careful planning." She added that she has asked the budget office to review user fees and fines, and evaluate whether they should be recalculated.

"Do the demands of the county go away just because we have a tax cap?" she said. "No. ... People who come to the Arundel Center in Annapolis always feel like their issue is No. 1."

The civility of the match, during which the candidates praised each other, marked a significant shift in tone from debates between Bissett and Davidsonville resident Tom Angelis in the Republican primary, a race that was marred by personality swipes.

Earlier in the evening, candidates for the 5th District council seat also got a chance to discuss their attributes and policies.

Incumbent Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican who was appointed in 2000 after the death of Councilman Cliff Roop, described herself as a "workhorse" who never stops serving her constituents, even when they call her at home at 11 p.m. on a Sunday.

Her challenger, Democrat George Maloney, said that his 25 years of experience in business have prepared him for serving on the council. He said he knows how to read budgets and evaluate the cost of capital improvements because he is involved in the contract and construction management industry.

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