Harford school building tax, fees stymied

County's legislators split on bill request by council

October 05, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

As a contentious monthslong debate simmers over school crowding, a request from the Harford County Council for state permission to raise taxes or fees to pay for construction costs is "not a done deal," state and local officials said last week.

County Council President Robert S. Wagner said Harford's Annapolis delegation is "not even close" to supporting a measure he requested in July that would allow the county to levy impact fees or excise taxes to help pay for building and renovating schools.

"I'd feel better if I could tell you, `Yeah, they're all solid,'" Wagner said.

But delegation chairman Del. Barry Glassman, a Republican who represents District 35A, said, "It's by far not a done deal."

Before the County Council can create such a revenue stream, the General Assembly must allow it. Enabling legislation would come from the county's House and Senate members, preferably in companion bills in both chambers.

But on Friday, Sen. Nancy C. Jacobs, a Republican who represents District 34, said she and Sens. J. Robert Hooper of District 35 and Andrew P. Harris of District 7 had discussed the legislation informally and would not support it.

"There won't be a bill on the Senate side," she said flatly, adding that she would fight any enabling legislation.

Wagner and Glassman said parents who focused their efforts on the council for months now need to turn their attention to lobbying state lawmakers.

The issue of crowding in Harford's schools seemed to come to a head after the Board of Education moved students last year from crowded Southampton Middle School to Fallston Middle. Miscalculations in the number of incoming sixth-graders threw off the enrollment figures, pushing Fallston's enrollment to 139 percent of capacity, school officials said.

Parents from Fallston Middle began attending council meetings and voicing concerns, soon reinforced by parents from other crowded schools.

"I think it's disingenuous for the state delegation to say they don't know what their constituents want," said DeLane Lewis, a lawyer from Baldwin who has three children in Fallston district schools and has helped to organize parents.

"The state delegates and senators are just not as accessible. There is not a place for the parents to go and stand up and tell them what they're thinking."

The parents' first opportunity to speak with legislators face to face on the issue won't be until next year, when Glassman plans to convene a public hearing at 6 p.m. Jan. 5 in the County Council chambers in Bel Air.

"We're committed, and we aren't going away," Lewis said, who added that parents plan to continue attending council meetings.

On Tuesday, the council is set to vote on two bills on adequate public facilities, one of which would shut down development in areas where school capacity reaches 115 percent, instead of the current 120 percent.

The other bill would establish an adequate public facilities review board.

The two proposals are largely regarded as ineffective in curtailing school crowding, officials and activists alike said.

"I'm very disappointed at what came out of the task force," Lewis said. "I think time will show it's going to have almost no impact."

The County Council, which charged a task force with studying the crowding issue for nearly six months, let the panel's amendments - which would have strengthened the bill - die at introduction during a meeting last month.

No council member would second the amendments, and they died without discussion.

Glassman hopes the proposed enabling legislation will fare better.

He said that with the cost of renovation projects already scheduled at three schools plus the planned Patterson Mill Middle-High School, "I think we can make a good case [that] ... the council needs to identify a new revenue source."

Glassman said he won't take a poll of delegation members until the General Assembly session convenes in mid-January. "I think it's got a pretty good shot at passing," he said.

But Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican representing District 7 in eastern Baltimore and western Harford counties, said many variables were still at play on school funding, including slot machines, which could add nearly a billion dollars to the state's coffers.

McDonough added that he ran on a pledge not to raise taxes. "I would be reluctant to support the enabling legislation," he said.

Jacobs, who represents communities including Edgewood, Havre de Grace and Joppatowne, said her constituents would be unfairly hit by such a measure.

"If this legislation gets put in, I will fight it on behalf of the citizens of the Route 40 corridor that weren't responsible for the growth and overcrowding of schools in the Bel Air area."

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