Guzzone backs Robey on transfer tax rise

Other councilmen stay publicly silent on plan to aid school construction

Howard County

November 12, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Few officials profess more interest in Howard County's vaunted public schools than the five County Council members. But in the 10 months of County Executive James N. Robey's crusade for higher transfer taxes to fund school construction, council members have kept publicly quiet - until now.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone broke the silence with an endorsement of Robey's quest for new revenues at a Howard Chamber of Commerce breakfast last week. The other members have remained quiet.

"We have to support funding," Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, told the business group at its annual legislative meeting. "I am 100 percent in support of the county executive's efforts to find a dedicated funding source. The transfer tax is a very viable option."

Robey wants the local General Assembly delegation to approve a 0.5 percent increase in the county's real estate transfer tax. The executive wants to use the revenue to borrow $215 million for schools over eight years and then pay off the debt.

Despite Guzzone's statement, other councilmen are keeping a low profile - hoping, some say, that they can help achieve a consensus with local legislators by working behind the scenes.

It is not clear why the councilmen have been so quiet, although the big local income tax increase that Robey pushed through in the spring might be playing a role.

Robey, who was angry in March when the county's three state senators killed his bill to boost real estate transfer taxes, said he was pleased to hear Guzzone's support at the breakfast. "I can only assume that council members have other political aspirations, and they may be thinking about what supporting that [transfer tax] may mean to them," he said.

The councilmen deny his charge.

With state school construction funding growing more scarce, fast-growing suburban counties such as Howard, Harford and Carroll are seeking approval from their reluctant General Assembly delegations for new taxes to ease crowded classrooms. The need for more teachers, police and buildings from years of fast growth means the county needs more money to keep up, Robey has argued.

The County Council's two Republicans, both angling to run for Robey's job in three years, voted against his income tax increase. But they also strongly support more school construction - including an expensive new high school and several elementary schools planned for their districts.

Meanwhile, the council's other two Democrats, who backed Robey and approved the income tax boost, said they are tired of the constant criticism over their votes and are wary about pushing for still higher taxes.

"I've come 180 degrees from where I was last year," said east Columbia Councilman David A. Rakes. "I'm hearing from more and more people that life is becoming more and more expensive."

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who attended the chamber breakfast, remained cautious, noting that some of next year's income tax revenues could be used to pay for school projects.

"The council has demonstrated its willingness to raise funds," he said. "I'm interested in seeing the [state] delegation step up to the plate."

Republicans said school funding is not before the council - so they are working quietly.

"The council does not have a say on the transfer tax," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican and a potential county executive candidate.

"I have no doubt that there's a need for school construction funds," Merdon said, adding, "I'm not interested in wasting political capital on something that I don't have a vote on."

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman of the western county, Merdon's GOP colleague, has declared his interest in running for county executive in 2006.

"There's a big difference between operating and capital budgets," said Kittleman. who was at the chamber breakfast. "It's not that it's politically awkward. If you want to get something done and we have no power, it doesn't make sense to put pressure publicly on people. I felt like the only way it's [getting money for schools] going to be successful is if it's bipartisan."

Because of that, he said, his efforts "can only be successful if it's not public."

Despite those sentiments, on Monday night Kittleman warned a large group of Bushy Park Elementary School parents worried about crowding at the 27-year- old Glenwood school that "we just can't keep raising taxes." He did not comment directly on the transfer tax proposal.

The county Chamber of Commerce has backed a Robey-appointed committee recommendation that the executive's transfer tax plan is the best way to raise the needed funds.

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