Officials debate county need for training center

Public safety leaders speak at council hearing

For police, firefighters

GOP council members ask tough questions

April 25, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A parade of public safety leaders testified last night that Howard County badly needs a proposed police and firefighter training center, but their arguments favoring the facility seemed a hard sell for the County Council's two Republicans, who repeatedly asked doubtful questions.

The public hearing on next year's proposed capital budget drew close to 100 people. A series of similar hearings is scheduled on the operating budget May 1 and 3. The council is to vote on new budgets for next fiscal year May 23.

But despite the war in Iraq, threats of terrorism and now the new SARS disease, County Executive James N. Robey is having a tough time garnering unanimous support for the county's first public safety training center he has long wanted to build.

"Where do you want fire and rescue personnel when there's an emergency in Howard County?" asked county Fire Chief Joseph Herr. "In Severna Park? In College Park?"

Herr said his recruits and their instructors load up county fire vehicles with county equipment for frequent trips to six different training sites as far as 40 miles outside the county to do specialized training, and police Chief Wayne Livesay said his officers use surplus fire and school buildings and borrow time at other counties' places. "It's losing time and, honestly, it's losing money," Livesay said.

Even when Mickey Day, chief of the West Friendship Volunteer Fire company that once took a publicly grateful Councilman Allan H. Kittleman to the hospital spoke for the project, Kittleman didn't relent.

"I care deeply about the volunteer fire department, and I don't want to hurt them. Don't take my questions to mean that I don't support it [a training center]. I just need to make sure," Kittleman, of western Howard, told Day.

Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon questioned the $17 million price tag of the center, though County Executive James N. Robey is asking for only $6.4 million of that for fiscal 2004.

"Could we do with $10 million, or $12 million?" he asked David McDonald, chairman of the county Fire Board.

McDonald said that if Herr needs a $17 million facility, he supports that. "That's what we hired him for."

"And that's what the citizens hired me for," Kittleman said quickly. "The public demands we really look at everything."

Don Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Police Training Commission, came to tell the council that the state's facility in Sykesville, Carroll County was intended "to supplement, not supplant" county training facilities.

"We are already short on space," he said, and there is no training at Sykesville for fire and rescue people.

"In a perfect world, I'd love to have this facility, but it's a tough year financially and we have to be careful," Kittleman said.

Council Democrats expressed no such doubts, however.

With world terrorism and new diseases spreading, "It seems to me time to have our own facility," said east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes.

Robey proposed a $148.5 million capital budget that includes $71.7 million in new borrowing - a county record. That was $54 million less than what department heads requested, but includes $55 million for schools. County Council members are considering adding up to $7 million more to keep the new 12th high school on track to open in 2005.

Although most of the money is earmarked for school construction, Robey included money to start work on the fire and police facility at the rear of Alpha Ridge Landfill along Interstate 70, and $1.1 million to develop a small portion of the 95-acre High Ridge Park along the Patuxent River.

That long-delayed project drew the most testimony, with 10 witnesses signed up to speak and about 40 people in the 80-strong audience attending the cheer them on.

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