Track record of ordinance in the spotlight

Value of APFO an issue in political campaigns

`It's not perfect'

Many want overhaul of adequate-facilities law

Howard County

October 27, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Bubbling up amid this year's political rhetoric is growing frustration over Howard County's decade-old law that tries to curb school crowding by slowing development.

Some candidates have talked of scrapping the system, while others defend it as a good tool that needs more tinkering, but no one is satisfied with the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO).

Time and again in recent years, those charged with administering APFO have failed to predict mushrooming school enrollments in fast-growing areas, causing widespread crowding, contentious redistricting and urgent demands for rapid school construction.

With a proposed school capital spending budget at $86.4 million, up 54 percent in a single year, and growing complaints about crowded schools and repeated school redistricting, there are concerns that Howard will not be able to afford to maintain the quality of its schools or other county services in the face of relentless growth.

"I call it IPFO - Inadequate Public Facilities Ordinance," quipped Lynne Bergling, a Democrat running for County Council in the congested Ellicott City area.

"If it cannot be changed to do what it is supposed to do, it should be replaced," she said, echoing doubts expressed by several officials - including Bergling's opponent, Republican Christopher J. Merdon.

Those doubts have popped up among a variety of candidates, and although the APFO law has not been at the forefront of political debate, clearly most people seeking county offices - from Merdon and Bergling to Elkridge Republican Brian Harlin and western county Democrat Stephen Musselman - want to see changes.

The law was tightened two years ago to include middle schools for the first time and to lower the threshold for crowding from 120 to 115 percent of capacity. Once a school reaches that level, development plans three years into the future are delayed until the county has time to solve the problem.

Intended to bring predictability to builders, parents, school and county officials, the law often has been known for the reverse. Needed new schools were delayed because of faulty enrollment projections and money problems. Parents were upset because of crowding and subsequent redistricting. Builders were displeased with delays.

Attempts to catch up caused sudden requests for expensive new buildings, upsetting county officials, too.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat seeking re-election, says the county cannot afford the proposed 54 percent increase in school spending for the budget year that starts in July.

Robey said he would reconvene the citizens committee that created the APFO law to study possible changes.

"It's working better than it was, but there's still problems," he said, especially with the accuracy of school enrollment projections - despite the efforts of a consultant and much closer cooperation between county planners and school officials.

Robey has given up on the hope that county school enrollments will ever peak and then decline, removing pressure for more schools. That easing of school spending pressure had been routinely forecast by Howard planners and political leaders until recently.

Formulas incomplete

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director, noted that the formulas used to predict school enrollment do not catch younger families replacing older ones in existing homes.

"If there is such a thing [as an enrollment peak], there will be more programmatic changes," said Robey, who noted that class-size reductions and all-day kindergarten can cost thousands of classroom seats.

APFO's defenders acknowledge its flaws but say it is better than nothing.

"It's not perfect. It was a compromise to begin with. It's way better than the nothing we had," said Del. Shane Pendergrass, who was a County Council member when the original law was passed.

Rutter said that as similar laws go nationwide, "this is one of the most predictable systems around," and county and school bureaucrats "have come light-years" in terms of working more closely together. "Is it perfect? No. Is it where it should be? No," he said. "I don't think we can afford to scrap it."

One alternative, charging builders development impact fees - even at $10,000 a house - would not produce enough money to build even one school addition, he said.

Steven H. Adler, the Republican candidate for county executive, said he feels that APFO "is getting closer" to its ideal, but needs more work. "I just don't believe at this point in time we need to reinvent the wheel. We could set ourselves back by starting over," he said.

Some, such as development critic John Taylor, an APFO committee member, say the law cannot work at the pace Howard County is growing. "The problem is not APFO and the solution is not APFO," he said.

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