Howard Week

March 30, 2003

Amid budget crunch, Robey in a bind over pay increases

Accompanied by a county police sergeant, a firefighter and a 911 dispatcher, Howard County Executive James N. Robey visited students at the private Young School in Guilford as part of the school's "Random Acts of Kindness" curriculum. The county employees described for students the vital public services they provide.

But Robey's kindness ranking with county workers may depend on whether the budget he proposes next month contains money for a cost-of-living pay raise for police, firefighters, dispatchers, teachers and other employees - what would be their first in two years.

But with state and local tax increases looming and the General Assembly contemplating more cuts, "everything is on hold until we see what the legislature is doing," Robey said. Budget requests for the fiscal year starting July 1 are more than $50 million more than anticipated new county revenue, so Robey, a career civil servant, is in a bind, he has said.

Columbia Town Center focus of speculation

As the Rouse Co. considers applying for permission to develop hundreds of additional residential units in Columbia, speculation is circulating about the future of the Town Center area near the mall, where most of the development likely would occur.

Will Merriweather Post Pavilion be torn down? Will Symphony Woods be developed? Will the Rouse Co. again try to build apartments around the amphitheater?

"Those are merely rumors," said Dennis Miller, the Rouse Co.'s vice president and general manager of Columbia. "Merriweather is going to open. ... Symphony Woods will never go away."

Miller said the Rouse Co. does not have any plans to develop the outdoor amphitheater and surrounding land. But residents and community leaders are brainstorming ideas for the area: constructing a restaurant in place of Merriweather Post Pavilion, turning the seasonal amphitheater into a year-round facility, or planting a rose garden in Symphony Woods.

Unmetered water billing measure is shelved

State legislators said Monday that they will delay considering a bill that would outlaw unmetered water billing to review the issue during the summer. The legislation is expected to be reintroduced next year.

"With so much happening with slots, there's not enough time to understand the problem," explained Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat and one of the bill's sponsors.

In Howard County, lawmakers said they would work to introduce local legislation this year that would regulate unmetered billing in the county. A citizens group studied unmetered billing last year and recommended that the county regulate the practice.

Woman's effort to save a stray dog fails

A stray chow chow dog was one of three animals put to death late Monday at the Howard County Animal Shelter, despite the frantic efforts of a Bethesda woman to save the reddish brown female.

Corrine Lerman says she called Democratic Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski and Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Lerman called "illogical" the county's refusal to allow inspection of the dog by a private group to see whether its hostile behavior was deeply ingrained or could have been changed with loving care.

Transit system's plan includes cutting some fares

Worried about possible budget cuts, operators of Howard County's small transit system think they've found two ways of raising more money - sell more advertising and cut some fares.

Ray Ambrose, manager of Corridor Transportation, the firm that runs the Howard Transit system, presented the strategy Tuesday night to the county's Public Transportation Board. The five members present endorsed it, though an occasional doubt was expressed.

Ambrose said he has considered raising fares because of concern that the state's huge budget deficit could result in funding reductions that could hurt the 10-route, 25-bus system. But computer models and the experience of other systems have convinced him that raising fares lowers ridership - which also lowers revenue.

A quick Route 32 solution appears quite unlikely

Maryland's new transportation secretary said Wednesday that he supports safety improvements on Route 32 in western Howard County, but he implied that people shouldn't hold their breath waiting to hear whether the long-argued-over highway will be widened.

A decision about the road's future could be reached this year, next year or maybe not for a while, Robert L. Flanagan said after a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce in Howard, his home county.

The state has offered three options for Route 32 as it runs from Route 108 to Interstate 70 in West Friendship: expand it to four lanes with interchanges, build only the interchanges or leave the road as it is.

French sees possible shift of power in school proposals

Proposed new rules for policymaking within the Howard school system - considered one of the Board of Education's top responsibilities - suggest a major shift in power from the board to the superintendent's staff, said Sandra H. French, the board chairman.

At a board meeting Thursday night, French bemoaned what she saw as a lack of input from the public and board members in creation of the first draft of the new rules, which has been under development by schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's staff since 2001. A critical management and performance review of the system suggested the need for the rules.

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