Senators give Robey hope for new funds

Transfer tax proposal was rejected in March

Howard County

November 07, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After getting a cold shoulder since January from Howard County state legislators asked to approve new taxes to fund school construction, County Executive James N. Robey saw signs of a thaw yesterday at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

"There's a good chance we'll find a way to fund some more money for school construction," said state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican and the second of Howard's three state senators to express general support for Robey's pleas in the past two days.

"I know Howard County needs [classroom] seats." Kittleman spoke as his grandson James, 4, sat in the audience with his dad, County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman.

"I heard it loud and clear. I was very encouraged," Robey said later.

Democratic Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who in March led the senators in killing Robey's real estate transfer tax increase proposal for schools, said after a meeting Wednesday of the General Assembly delegation, "I'm confident we'll work out something. We'll reach a solution."

Because approval of local bills requires a majority of senators and delegates voting separately, Kittleman's comment could be important if agreement on some source of funding is reached this winter.

After the Clarksville breakfast, Sen. Sandra B. Schrader agreed with Kittleman, though she noted that "where we get the money is another story." Still, Robey said yesterday's response "was certainly more positive than some of the reactions" at the meeting Wednesday.

The entire county General Assembly delegation has scheduled a public hearing on funding suggestions for Nov. 20 at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

Robey and Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, have argued that finding a new, dedicated source of money for school construction is important in the county's overall fiscal future - a point underlined this week, they said, in a meeting with one of three municipal bond rating agencies.

"The meeting on Monday [with Fitch Ratings] didn't go well," Robey told the legislators at the delegation meeting. County officials plan to travel to New York on Tuesday to meet with the other two rating agencies, Wacks said, and tell them about the revenue reversals that left Howard looking at a $10 million shortfall instead of a $7 million surplus at the end of the last fiscal year, June 30. Howard's AAA bond rating adds to its prestige and allows bonds to be sold at the lowest interest rates, Robey said.

"We felt it was important that there were no surprises. We wanted to make sure we were clear to them about why it happened and what actions we are taking," Wacks said. Robey has told department heads to spend $20 million less this year to avoid another shortfall.

Even with a big county income tax increase scheduled to bring in about $24 million more this fiscal year and roughly $60 million more next year (starting July 1), Wacks said the county will be faced with deficit spending in four or five years if money is borrowed to fund all the capital budget requests.

The $55 million in debt interest the county is paying this year will double by then, Robey told the legislators.

In contrast, the 0.5 percent transfer tax increase he has requested would create a dedicated long-term local fund for school construction. The higher tax would bring in $10 million a year, which the county could use to borrow $215 million over eight years and then pay off the debt.

Still, some legislators question whether more schools are required. "When do we get around to anybody questioning the need?" asked Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican who isn't sure the new northern high school sought by both Kittlemans and the school board is needed.

She complained that school officials have planned poorly, increasing their construction requests for fiscal year 2005 from a projected $49 million 18 months ago to $115.1 million this year - down from $150 million that schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke requested. Bates said Howard is spending up to twice per pupil on the new, 12th high school compared with what Carroll County spends.

"They're asking for $115 million with 900 new students expected?" Bates said. Perhaps, if Howard County is committed to smaller class sizes, classrooms can be built smaller to save money, she said.

School board member Courtney Watson, a strong supporter of the new high school, challenged Bates, however, arguing that the county will be short 1,300 high school seats by 2005 without the new school.

She said Howard's per-pupil spending for Reservoir High, the county's newest, is less than Carroll County's per-pupil cost for Winters Mill High, its newest. And early bids on the new northern high school are $4 million under projections - in line with the prices the county paid for Reservoir, she said.

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