Robey's transfer tax talk faulted

Executive attempts again to win over legislators

Some favor new-home impact fee

Howard County

November 06, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive James N. Robey tried yesterday to again win support from skeptical state legislators for more taxes to fund school construction, but the result after two hours of discussion seemed clear -- no sale.

Robey's idea of increasing the real estate transfer tax as a way of targeting new families bringing children into county schools drew mostly hostile questions from the six delegates and three state senators at the session.

But Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat, had a more basic query: Why, when the county's fastest growth years are over, is the bill for school construction unaffordable by normal means?

"What has changed now? We've been dealing with it somehow. Why, all of a sudden -- boom?" he asked, referring to the school board's request for $115 million next year and $311 million more by 2010.

Schools Superintendent John R. O' Rourke replied that "we have been squeezing kids in" by using spaces not designed for classrooms and using 116 portable classrooms, all while delaying needed renovations and maintenance on many older buildings.

"It has a cumulative effect," O'Rourke said, adding that without new classrooms, class sizes may have to increase.

The executive's plan is to increase the transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent and use the $10 million a year in new revenue to borrow $215 million over eight years for school construction, and then pay off the bonds -- in effect, creating a dedicated fund just for schools. That, he argued, would free county bond funds for other government projects, such as roads, building renovations, new firehouses or a new courthouse.

The higher tax would cost $1,250 more at settlement on a $250,000 house. Robey has said the transfer tax would amount to a one-time levy on people buying existing and new homes in Howard County -- those who are most likely to enroll children in crowded county schools.

Robey aide Sang Oh noted that the transfer tax plan would raise only about 40 percent of what is needed for school projects this decade.

But several legislators objected to a narrow tax or one that hits existing-home sales equally with new homes.

"To tax one segment of the population, I have a problem with that. The county has measures it can use to fund the capital budget," said Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican.

"The question for me is, where is the need originating?" asked Del. Elizabeth Bobo. If existing-home sales are fueling it, the Democrat added, why aren't Columbia's schools as crowded as those in outlying areas?

"New construction is what is causing us to have more children [enrolled in schools]," said Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat.

GOP Del. Gail H. Bates appeared to agree, noting that "the places we have overcrowding are areas of new growth."

If any relief is needed, she and several others seemed friendlier to impact fees as high as $15,000 on each new home. Robey stressed he would support any money-raising legislation on which the county's Assembly delegation can agree.

"One-acre lots out my way are selling for $300,000. I don't think they'll get hurt by $15,000" or more, Republican Sen. Robert H. Kittleman said.

But county officials say that impact fees won't do the job for several reasons. New-home construction is declining in Howard, limiting revenues, and the proceeds from impact fees must be used near the development and can't go into a dedicated fund.

"I want to work with you," Robey told legislators. After the discussion, he said: "I'm still optimistic they have an open mind."

Robey proposed raising the property transfer tax in January -- an idea county Realtors strongly opposed and which the three senators killed in March.

Over the summer, Robey named a citizens committee to re-examine the issue, looking again at ways to pay for the increasingly expensive cost of new classrooms -- especially with the state requiring all-day kindergarten by 2007. The group voted 12-3 in September to recommend the transfer tax.

Yesterday's meeting with legislators at the county's Gateway Building in Columbia was designed to present them with the committee's results two months before the Assembly convenes.

After the meeting, even Kasemeyer didn't completely shut the door on Robey's plea.

"I'm confident we'll work out something," he said. "We'll reach a solution."

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