County senators kill courthouse upgrade bonds

2 Democrats lead the way in rejecting $400,000 plan

`Shocked and disappointed'

Stinging embarrassment for a dismayed executive

January 15, 2003|By Tricia Bishop and Larry Carson | Tricia Bishop and Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

What was supposed to be a routine local approval of a request for state bond money for courthouse renovations turned into a stinging embarrassment in Annapolis yesterday for Howard County Executive James N. Robey.

With two fellow Democrats leading the way, Howard's state legislators rejected Robey's request for state funding for what court officials believe are badly needed improvements in the crowded, historic Circuit Court building in Ellicott City.

Usually, the entire General Assembly takes the blame for killing such local bills, not the locals themselves.

"Generally, procedure-wise, we pass all the [local] bond bills," said Republican state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, who supported the bill. "We want to get all we can. It's kind of unusual to kill one before it gets filed."

But Robey said he was stunned to learn yesterday that the request had died - and because of opposition from two members of his own party: state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who cast the deciding vote, and Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who articulated the main argument against the request.

Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader also voted "no," defeating the bill, 2-1, among the three state senators. County delegates approved the request, with Bobo opposed.

"I'm very sympathetic and understanding of the renovation needs," Bobo said, "but I think the wiser thing is to just put efforts into the new courthouse rather than to spend millions to renovate this one for a short time."

The $400,000 would cover Phase 1 of the renovation project - mainly a fifth courtroom. Phase 2 would require $3.6 million to complete an expansion by 2006. The county hopes to build a $45 million courts building about 2010.

"I'm absolutely shocked. We haven't even requested Phase 2," said administrative Judge Diane O. Leasure, who said that yesterday five jury trials were under way, but only four jury deliberation rooms were available.

Court officials complain that they are squeezed into an increasingly inadequate structure as the county - and the volume of court cases - grows. A major renovation and addition was done in 1986.

"I have no room for domestic violence victims when they come in. We had to put a judge in the basement. Air quality is horrible," said a "very, very, very surprised" Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport.

"I won't live long enough to see a new courthouse built," she said.

Robey said he was "shocked and disappointed" by the courthouse decision, particularly because "no one even talked to me." The executive, who had planned to attend the delegation meeting, did not because he was told it was not necessary, he said.

The courthouse renovations must be done, Robey said. "I have no choice."

The delegation vote means legislators have shifted the total burden to county taxpayers. A new court building is at least eight to 10 years off, if that soon, Robey said.

Herman Charity, Robey's legislative lobbyist, said he expected a routine approval despite some grumbling from several legislators. "I didn't feel it was going to be a problem because of what the recommendation was last year," he said.

Howard legislators approved the same request last year, but no state funds were approved by the full legislature. Charity said the county received a letter last year from the House Appropriations Committee "saying that this project would get first consideration if funding was available."

Robey has been lobbying the county's legislators frequently on behalf of his proposal to increase the county's real estate transfer tax to generate $215 million over eight years for school construction.

But, as he told a gathering of the Association of Community Services in a lunchtime appearance in Columbia yesterday, the extra school construction money that the tax increase would provide would also free money for other local priorities, such as a new senior center in Glenwood and longer-range projects such as a new courts building.

His plan for a new county complex will not go forward in next year's capital budget, he said.

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