Senator may be key to tax rise

Voting patterns make Schrader position critical

She stresses `accountability'

Robey seeking increase in real estate transfer levy

Howard County

January 12, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Barely into his second term as Howard County executive, James N. Robey is embarking on his boldest endeavor yet -- trying to persuade 11 independent-minded state legislators to approve a real estate transfer tax increase.

His proposal to raise the closing costs on home purchases to borrow $215 million over eight years, which he considers vital to paying for critical school construction and other government building projects, could come down to one state senator's vote.

If voting patterns prevail, Republican Sandra B. Schrader could hold the key to a decision because Howard's three state senators and eight delegates vote separately on legislation that affects only Howard County.

Because six of those delegates are Democrats, like Robey, but two state senators are Republicans, Schrader, who is a big education advocate that opposes higher taxes, could cast the decisive vote, some think.

"I guess that's part of the job. It's not a very comfortable situation sometimes," Schrader said shortly before meeting with Robey in Annapolis on Thursday.

The county's House delegation chairman, Democrat Frank S. Turner, said, "I think it will get through the House. The question is whether or not there's two votes in the Senate to make it happen. That's going to be key."

Democratic Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer's first reaction was that Robey's plan is "pretty creative." Still, he added, "It's pretty new, and people are examining the plan's implications."

Schrader said she is keeping an open mind and has some pointed questions to ask.

"This is hiking up the taxes. Let's take a look at the accountability here," she said.

Schrader said she is particularly opposed to Robey's plans for a new county office complex in Ellicott City, which could be built with funds freed by the new borrowing for schools.

"That county complex cannot be in the capital budget. That, to me, is a luxury we can afford to put off," she said. "We have a problem and we have to solve it."

Regular meetings between state and county elected officials might help find solutions, she said.

The Senate delegation chairman, Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican, said borrowing money beyond the $50 million a year the county might expect to raise for the other purposes bothers him, even if it comes with a dedicated repayment plan.

But he is willing to listen, he said.

"I think it's going to get roundly discussed. I really hate to go to $80 million in bonds. I know schools are in a crunch and the money is not there. What do you do? I don't know," he said.

None of the county's legislators has come out for or against Robey's proposal, but several school board members have endorsed the executive's attempt to find new funding for school projects.

"We're attracting more and more kids, with no end in sight. We do need to consider other ways to pay for it," said Courtney Watson, the board's newest member.

The plan is to raise the transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent and use the $10 million a year in new revenue to borrow $215 million over eight years, after which the money would be dedicated to paying off the bonds.

The legislators have scheduled a public hearing for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

Meanwhile, Robey said he will lobby the legislators individually and together as often as he can in an effort to persuade them that his plan is reasonable and needed.

"It's the major effort of my four years in office. It's that critical to the county," the 62-year old former police chief said last week. "It's essential. There is no Plan B."

County real estate agents are opposed to the tax increase because it would add, for example, $1,250 to the closing costs for a $250,000 house.

Rick LaRocca, president of the Association of Howard County Realtors, argued that county residents who sell a smaller house to move up to a larger one would face the increase twice and that civil servants would have an even harder time coming up with cash for settlement.

Robey "says he's between a rock and a hard place, but unfortunately, so are the buyers and sellers," LaRocca said.

Robey argues that taxes paid to transfer homeownership apply the burden for building classrooms most fairly to the primary cause of school enrollment increases, families with children moving to Howard County.

"I can no longer continue neglecting 16 leaking county buildings," he said, also noting his promise to build a senior center in Glenwood, in the western county.

Robey also wants to develop a 25-acre Ellicott City office complex to centralize government functions, and sentiment is growing for a new courts building to replace the crowded, historic current building.

"There's no way I can find the capital funds I need," Robey said.

County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, is not taking sides yet, he said, though school construction has been a major council focus for years.

Guzzone did praise the idea of a separate, dedicated funding source for school construction.

"On the surface, I think it's very creative and has a lot of potential," he said. "Because it's separated and dedicated, it's clear to taxpayers exactly what they're getting," he said.

"The problem has to be solved, and it's going to be painful one way or another."

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