If Howard County wants to stay on top of Maryland's economic heap, the local government needs more money, starting with a real estate transfer tax increase, County Executive James N. Robey told a packed Chamber of Commerce luncheon in his annual State of the County speech yesterday.
Robey's plan to raise $215 million for school construction by raising home-sale closing costs might be a long shot politically, but the Democratic former police chief tried to narrow the odds a bit by appealing to 280 leaders of the county's business community at a Columbia hotel.
"I've got minds to change," Robey said before the speech.
Brandishing a snow shovel to symbolize the $250,000 of red ink the county had incurred for snow removal before last night's anticipated storm, he said the plan is "sound, predictable and equitable" and is vital to pay for the schools, senior centers and a public safety training center, and to fix other infrastructure problems.
State-mandated, all-day kindergarten will require 80 new classrooms, and the demand for expensive new elementary schools -- predicted to be unnecessary just a few years ago -- is once again on the rise.
"The county's entire capital budget program is contingent on this proposal," he told the crowd, arguing that without it, and with the strains of coming state budget cuts and fast-rising operating costs, something has to give.
Before the speech, Robey said that without General Assembly approval of the one-half percent transfer tax increase, "projects will be delayed longer and longer."
His office leaks when it rains, the courthouse is bursting at the seams and "we are facing a maintenance crisis at county facilities," he said.
But it is not just building and repair projects that are at stake, he said. Revenues are expected to rise $30 million next fiscal year, but operating budget requests are expected to double that amount. Schools alone want $34 million more in county funding. Police spent $323,000 in unplanned overtime during last fall's sniper shootings in Montgomery County.
And the budget cuts made to avoid deficits last year cannot go on, he said. The county has a top borrowing rating, the third-lowest income tax in the state and is on sound financial footing, barring state cost-cutting. But all that and first-rate service cannot continue, Robey said.
"It is also important for you to understand that the measures we took last year to put together that budget are not sustainable year after year" without service cuts, he said.
Ultimately, he said, it all adds up to one goal he sees as crucial.
"It is imperative to the future success of Howard County that we not slip backward and sacrifice the gains we have made thus far," he said.
In practical terms, Robey's plan is likely to be in the hands of Howard's three state senators, two of whom are Republicans. The chances they will approve a county tax increase while helping the first Republican governor in 36 years deal with a $1.3 billion state revenue shortfall are not great.
Robey did not urge his listeners to lobby the three state senators and eight delegates who hold the power to kill his plan. And he said the lobbying he has done has not yielded much in the way of support.
If the opinion of one Republican who attended is any gauge, Robey has a lot more selling to do.
"I said he would raise taxes," said Steven H. Adler, the Republican businessman who ran against Robey in November and lost.
The election is over, but Adler said school administration should be sharply cut, and Howard residents trying to "move up" by selling a smaller home to buy a larger one should not have to pay the higher transfer tax costs. Under Robey's plan, a $250,000 home would cost $1,250 more in transfer taxes.
Robey argues that it is home sales that are driving the huge school costs the county is facing -- costs that are eating up money that could be used to satisfy other needs. School surveys show that 57 percent of new students in Howard's schools over the past two years come from sales of existing homes. Who better to pay those costs than the families who are bringing the new kids, Robey contends.
Realtors who oppose the plan are making more money than ever before on Howard's hot real estate market, Robey said. And they agree that top-flight schools are the linchpin of the county's economic prosperity that feeds their business, but they won't step up to help pay the freight, Robey said before the speech.
If he changed any minds in the audience, it was hard to tell. Donna Richardson, chamber chief executive officer and government and public affairs manager for Comcast, said she had not read much about the proposal and had not formed an opinion. And neither has the chamber, she said.