Transfer tax talk heats up in Howard

County's state legislators balk at OK'ing proposed increase, delay vote again

February 20, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Acrimony over a proposal to fund $215 million in school construction with an increase in the county's real estate transfer tax rose to the surface in Annapolis yesterday, as members of the county's legislative delegation again postponed a final vote on the plan.

House delegation chairman Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat who supports the proposal, first asked the county state senators, who oppose the tax increase, if they have a better plan. "In the letters I get, people don't want higher income tax or property tax," he said.

During a break, Turner said the three senators, who last week said they opposed the bill proposed by County Executive James N. Robey, "just don't want to show any leadership."

Republican Del. Gail Bates, who requested a week's delay in voting because Democratic state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer was attending another meeting, said that nearly every county department and agency leader "dependent on the county executive's budget are for this [transfer tax]. I think there are other options."

And Republican Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, who called Robey's plan "absolutely irresponsible," said during a break that he had no reply to Turner's asking if the senators had a better plan.

"I can't tell the [County] Council what they should do. It's a county problem," he said.

Robey wants county legislators to approve raising the real estate transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent so he can use the revenue to borrow $215 million for school construction over eight years, then pay the debt.

Legislators are hostile to approving a local tax increase, preferring to push the chore back on the County Council.

The county's eight delegates and three senators must separately approve such a bill, which would affect only Howard County. Robey and county school board members have said that with constantly rising school enrollments, mandatory all-day kindergarten by 2007, and capital budget requests of $200 million for schools during the next two years, he must find a new revenue source.

The transfer tax plan would create a separate dedicated fund for school construction as state financing for schools wanes, he has argued. Because it would apply only to those buying or selling homes, it would generate money mainly from families who are adding children to county schools. Closing costs on a $250,000 home would increase by $1,250 if the tax rises.

All three county senators signed a statement last week drafted by Kasemeyer saying Robey's plan calls for too narrow a tax increase, and that the council should use a more broadly based tax - such as the county-controlled income or property tax - to raise money for school construction.

Despite that strong rejection, Robey's lobbyist Herman Charity said the executive is still trying to change legislators' minds. He has not withdrawn the bill, despite a request that he do so from Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat.

"We still think the transfer tax is the best way to go," Charity said, especially because the state budget is far from settled. "We hope they will realize this is the best way."

But although no senator has changed position, legislative restraint on discussing the issue appears to be eroding as time passes without a final vote. Turner promised a vote next week.

After hearing a plea for the transfer tax plan from county firefighters union President Mike Rund, Pendergrass criticized the bill.

"We heard this was to build schools," Pendergrass said, questioning how transfer revenue could pay for anything else.

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