Harkins, Gilbert face off to lead Harford

Former city planner held post under Rehrmann

October 13, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Paul Gilbert doesn't mince words when he talks about why he is running for Harford County executive.

The county's top issue is growth, he said, and the administration of James M. Harkins isn't doing enough to control it.

"I can possibly do something about it," he said. "That's why I am here."

Gilbert, 53, a Democrat who was economic development director in the administration of former County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, supports enacting impact fees to help pay for school construction; concentrating growth around towns; and creating a Cabinet-level post to work closely with the schools.

The Baltimore native lives in Darlington with his wife, Kathleen, and when he's not campaigning he likes to work in his garden and do projects around the house. They have a 35-year- old son and two young granddaughters.

He graduated from Clemson University in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in architecture, and earned his master's degree in city and regional planning from Clemson in 1973.

Gilbert returned to Baltimore in 1973 as a city planner and also worked on revitalization and economic development projects at several agencies before coming to Harford County in 1987 as the president of Bata Shoe's land company, BLC Properties Inc.

His primary responsibility at BLC is well-known in the community: He worked on the development of Riverside, a mixed-use community in the Route 40 corridor that includes the Riverside Business Park and Corporate Center, Riverside Shopping Center and 2,700 residential units.

Gilbert said that experience in community building gives him an edge over his opponent at managing growth.

Harkins and the County Council have lacked the political will, he said, to address growth by enacting impact fees, which are added to the cost of new houses to help pay for infrastructure improvements such as schools, roads and parks.

The issue is a rallying cry for several candidates running for County Council and the General Assembly. Gilbert said if he is elected, he will not shrink from the issue. "I am going to make the [legislative] delegation and council understand that I view [winning] as a mandate," he said.

The fees, he estimated, would provide $8 million to $10 million that would be used to pay for school construction, modernization and expansion. He said the county needs to generate its own financing because the state is facing deep deficits.

"Let's not wait to see what the state's going to do, because the state's not going to have any money," he said. "We need to get real comfortable with the idea that we need to go it alone."

Crowding needs to be addressed before the schools begin graduating students who have spent their academic careers trudging from trailer to trailer, he added.

Gilbert proposes eliminating the community and governmental relations post from the Cabinet to create a director of educational services to strengthen the partnership between county government and the school system.

While schools in the central and northern parts of the county are overpopulated, he said, schools in the Route 40 corridor are underpopulated. He proposes a hospitality and health services magnet program at Havre de Grace High School, similar to the financial academy at Edgewood High and the planned science and math magnet program at Aberdeen High School.

"We have to make them `go-to' schools," he said.

As the county heads into a round of comprehensive rezoning in the next term, Gilbert said, he would encourage transfers of development rights from the rural north to the more populated areas around Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, where infrastructure is in place or easily accessible.

He claimed that the Harkins administration favors old friends, noting as an example a much-discussed land transfer this year between the county and a development group that includes several of Harkins' political supporters.

That Harkins was cleared of wrongdoing by the state prosecutor matters little to Gilbert. "It's an embarrassment," he said.

On a recent morning, Gilbert also didn't mince words about his bluntness, something for which he is sometimes criticized.

"For the most part, I really am a no-nonsense kind of guy," he said. "But you'll always know where I'm coming from."

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