Howard Week

February 09, 2003

Robey faces decision on tax increase as revenues fall short

As Howard County officials wrestle with whether to boost real estate transfer taxes to finance more school construction, County Executive James N. Robey is facing another major financial problem - not enough new cash for next year's operating budget.

After barely avoiding an $18 million budget shortfall during last year's elections, Robey has said repeatedly the fiscal belt-tightening cannot go on forever, and with requests far outstripping new revenues, something has got to give.

"It is clearly a separate issue," Robey said, noting that he does not know whether he will propose a general tax increase in April. "I've said consistently I would not rule out any tax increase."

Effort to ban smoking moves forward in council

Sitting in a crowded Washington jazz club recently, Howard County Councilman David A. Rakes grabbed a waiter to report that a patron at a nearby table was smoking.

"He said, `Yes, and he has an ashtray,' " Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat said, recalling his surprise at remembering that smoking is allowed in clubs in the nation's capital. "It was awful," he said.

Rakes, like other candidates who favored tightening Howard's anti-smoking laws in a Smoke Free Howard County Coalition campaign survey last year, is preparing to move on those promises - including one to stop smoking in all bars and restaurants.

The first step is a bill all five councilmen are sponsoring that would ban giving away sample cigarettes in the county. The bill, also supported by County Executive James N. Robey, was pushed first by west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman. It is due for a vote in March.

$20 million shortfall seen, even with transfer tax

Howard County likely will be $20 million short in capital budget construction funding next year even if the Robey administration's proposed transfer tax increase is approved, County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone said Tuesday at a meeting between the council and the school board.

Ellicott City Republican Councilman Christopher J. Merdon added a new, longer-range warning for school officials - that rezoning planned along the U.S. 1 corridor would result in "hundreds and thousands of new dwelling units" that ultimately would produce more students than classrooms can handle.

The comments by Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, seemed designed to bolster County Executive James N. Robey's argument by noting that even with a tax increase, capital budget funding would be dicey, at best.

First of 3 work sessions held on schools' budget

The Howard County Board of Education held the first of three public work sessions Tuesday night to discuss schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year, making little headway into the inches-thick document.

It asks for $440.4 million - a $49.6 million increase over the current budget - three-quarters of which would have to come from the county and is unlikely to be fully funded, County Executive James N. Robey indicated at a PTA Council meeting Monday night.

The work session, which largely consisted of board questions and fumbled staff answers, focused on revenues, instruction and midlevel administration.

Realtors chief resigns amid debate on tax

The president of the real estate group battling to defeat the Robey administration's plan to increase the Howard County property transfer tax has resigned, just as the fight is coming to a head.

Rick LaRocca said Wednesday that his action is not related to the tax issue that was the subject of a key public hearing Thursday in Howard County Council chambers, but he agreed that the timing of his decision is awkward.

Opposing the tax increase, the county's Realtors group has sponsored newspaper advertisements and lobbied legislators because the measure would increase the cost of closing on a house. Buying a $250,000 home would cost $1,250 more at settlement.

Legislators seek to toughen state's video voyeurism law

Two Howard County legislators filed bills Wednesday that would strengthen the penalties for violators of Maryland's 3-year-old video voyeurism law in an effort to recognize what one called the "extraordinary trauma" inflicted in such cases.

The proposed legislation from Democratic Del. Neil Quinter and Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader would increase video-peeping violations from misdemeanor to felony crimes, and the maximum penalty from six months and a $1,000 fine to five years and a $10,000 fine.

The legislators said the changes, which were introduced at the request of Howard prosecutors, would place the crime more on par with the state's felony wiretapping statute, which allows for a five-year sentence.

Transfer tax issue draws scores to county hearing

About 200 people braved the snow for what became an intense discussion about the best way to pay for Howard County's top-rated school system at a legislative hearing Thursday night in Ellicott City.

"Although I am a Realtor by profession, I come to you tonight as a 25-year resident of Howard County and ask you to raise my taxes," said David Leonard, who advocated higher income taxes instead of raising the real estate transfer tax to pay for new schools.

The schools are needed to accommodate enrollment growth that is averaging about 1,000 students a year.

Paul Bosworth of Ellicott City said he supports the tax and offered a remedy for Realtors' concerns. "[The added cost] can be eliminated by a rebate of one-half percent of their commission."

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