Budget battle features a twist

In contrast, Republicans are pushing for spending

Want faster school construction

Robey, other Democrats call stance election ploy

April 17, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Some of Howard County's toughest budget battles have been over spending for schools, but the latest has an interesting twist. Two traditionally conservative Republicans are urging more borrowing to speed construction of a 12th high school while Democrats favor delay and fiscal conservatism.

"It just can't help but strike me that we've heard about tax-and-spend Democrats. You could say the alternative is borrow and spend," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat and a former county executive.

The debate partly echoes a fractious fight this year when state legislators from Howard brushed aside County Executive James N. Robey's proposal to increase the county tax on real estate sales and use the money to fund $215 million in school construction with bonds that would be paid off over 20 years.

Democrats and Republicans say the current disagreement is not about politics, just good schools and prudent government.

But the debate over whether the $48 million high school opens in 2005 or later could become more contentious and partisan with revenues tight and more state budget cuts possible. Signs of how much trouble might be ahead are expected when Robey proposes his operating budget for the coming fiscal year Monday .

Robey, a Democrat, says the high school should be delayed to save the county $21 million in bond borrowing next year that it cannot afford. But Republican Councilmen Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and Allan H. Kittleman of the western county suspect Robey also is using the delay to bolster his campaign for another shot at the transfer tax plan next year.

"It is a component in the decision. I can't say that's the total reason," Merdon said, referring to Robey's plan to delay the high school project. The county could borrow more next year without risking any harm, Merdon said.

Kittleman noted comments by Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, that delaying the high school may boost chances for approval of the transfer tax increase next year.

The two Republicans are trying to pressure at least one Democrat on the five-member council to join them and restore funding to speed work on the school. They have scheduled a public meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City to garner more support for the school.

Democrats worry that Kittleman and Merdon have the luxury of pushing a popular cause not likely to win a council vote, but which might win voters' hearts. Their effort has put the Democrats on the defensive.

"I'm shocked to hear two Republicans who always preached debt reduction, preach borrowing $100 million. There's got to be an ulterior motive," Robey said. "I think a lot of folks have started running for the next election."

Merdon and Kittleman deny that, insisting their only goal is to open the school sooner rather than later. "Chris and I have always supported the 12th high school," Kittleman said.

Feeling pressure

The pressure they have stirred is mainly affecting freshman Democrat Ken Ulman, a Robey supporter who represents west Columbia and is based in River Hill, where high school crowding is a problem.

"I'm getting a lot of e-mails, and folks in River Hill are generating them," he said, insisting that although he would love to see the school open earlier, "I'm not fiscally irresponsible."

Ulman, too, is suspicious of Republican motives. "A number of people see what they are doing. They have been conservative voices for debt levels," he said, noting that the school is planned for Kittleman's district.

Everyone involved in the debate agrees on the urgent need for the school, to be built near Mount View Middle School on Old Frederick Road.

But Robey balked at borrowing more than $71.1 million next year, a record for capital projects and a 47 percent increase, compared with the previous year.

The Republicans and some school board members say the high school cannot wait and that the county can afford to borrow up to $100 million. Robey budgeted $4.5 million for the school in fiscal 2004, for site preparation and to build the school's foundation.

Support on board

Merdon and Kittleman have been aided by nonpartisan school board member Courtney Watson, who helped persuade Robey to approve plans for the school two years ago.

"We just really need to focus on the needs of Howard County and forget about the partisan nature of the discussion," she said. "Howard County people want to hear about how to meet the needs of Howard County students."

But Kittleman and Merdon said that public support could persuade Ulman or another Democrat to vote their way and restore the money that Robey cut.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said Robey has gone as far as is prudent, greatly increasing county borrowing to meet the need for more classrooms while state school construction money and county surpluses are nil.

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