Robey attacks foes of transfer tax proposal

Plan seeks to fund school construction

Lawmakers `turned their backs'

Schrader calls increase a `long-term liability'

Howard County

February 23, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With his transfer tax plan for funding school construction dead if not yet buried, Howard County Executive James N. Robey is accusing local state legislators who oppose it of abandoning their public responsibility in a severe fiscal crisis.

"I'm just more disappointed in government than I've ever been in my life," said Robey, a Democrat. "We looked to Annapolis for help in dealing with this budget crisis, and they turned their backs on us."

The senators who oppose the transfer tax increase rejected Robey's charges, saying his proposal and approach were flawed, and recommending income or property tax increases.

"The transfer tax is not the answer to this. It's a short-term fix with a horrendous long-term liability," said state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican. She and Democrat Edward J. Kasemeyer said Robey sprang the "crisis" on them at the last minute, expecting agreement. "He doth protest too loudly," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican.

But Robey said the issue boils down to a choice.

"Is it reasonable to assess this tax perhaps once or twice in a person's life to help ensure a continuation of the best school system in Maryland, or do we put this burden on every taxpayer, rich or poor, every year through an income or property tax increase?" he said.

Acknowledging that with all three county state senators against it, his plan is dead, Robey vowed not to withdraw it before a vote scheduled for Wednesday.

"I'm held accountable to the voters every year when we prepare a budget and send it to the County Council. They need to be held accountable. The public needs to know where they stand," Robey said.

"You can't say in one breath that `education is important and I support it' while at the same time say no to a request like this," he said.

Robey asked the county's 11 state legislators to increase the real estate transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent and use the revenue to borrow $215 million for school construction and then pay off the debt. That would supplement bond borrowing and state aid to enable the county to build for the future needs of schools, while allowing construction of other facilities.

He pointed to a water-stained ceiling tile in his office that he said was clear three weeks ago. Leaking roofs, road maintenance, a western county senior center and a public training facility are all on the line, he said.

"They don't want me to build the public-safety training facility for some reason," he said about a long-delayed western county center for county police and firefighters. "They told me they may look more favorably on this if I took that off the table."

Schrader said, "The county has other [state] facilities they can use. I have a problem when we're in a crisis situation when we're looking to build something that's not a critical need at this point."

Kittleman said he is most opposed because of the added debt Robey's plan would put on the county. "He has the power to raise the income and property tax," Kittleman said, adding, however, that he is not unwilling to look at giving the county the power to adjust the transfer tax.

Kasemeyer said things could have been different if Robey had tried for a consensus before revealing his idea publicly. "I think it's unfair for one branch of government to assume another branch is going to automatically agree," he said.

Robey disagreed, saying the legislators had their minds made up before the Feb. 6 public hearing. "Nothing would have changed," regardless of his political bedside manner, he said.

The senators had said, in a statement prepared by Kasemeyer, that the transfer tax is too narrow a levy and that education should be supported by broad taxes controlled by the county - such as income and property taxes.

"I hope they remember. I hope they have good memories that they said that because one way or another we've got to continue funding a reasonable capital program for the school system at the same time meeting other capital needs," Robey said.

"We know it's a narrow tax. It was intended to be a narrow tax," he added.

Robey's plan was to get school construction money from homebuyers, who would send new children to the county's school system. The school board is asking for $200 million in just the next two years, and plans call for opening four new elementary schools and a new high school by 2006.

Robey said that using the transfer tax revenue as a dedicated fund for school construction will relieve the financial pressure, allowing other badly needed projects to go forward.

Without it, he said, "I don't have dollars to build a senior center in [Del.] Gail Bates' district. I'm going to call Gail and ask her if she wants me to build that senior center out there. If she says no, let her tell the residents."

Bates said: "If that's the threat - because I oppose this he's going to hold a senior center hostage - that's his fault."

Asked whether forcing the legislators to declare themselves on what he agreed is a dead issue will provoke political feuding that could hurt the county, Robey dismissed it.

"I'm not sure they could hurt Howard County any more in the next three years than they're already hurting Howard County," he said.

And for those legislators who he said have complained about being put on the spot, he said, "I'd be willing to take the pressure off them in a heartbeat. Give us the enabling legislation to deal with it at a local level."

Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat, has suggested the legislators approve a bill giving the county the power to adjust the transfer tax without voting to raise taxes themselves.

"Make no mistake. I put them on the spot, but that's why they were elected by the voters. That's why we were elected to office - to make tough decisions," said Robey.

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