Legislators asked to find school funds

PTA, parents say new buildings needed

`What are you going to do'

Transfer tax, rejected last winter, gains support

Howard County

November 21, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's state legislators were challenged last night by more than 100 often blunt-spoken county PTA leaders and parents to approve a new funding source for school construction.

"Here's your opportunity to live up to your campaign promises," Patapsco Middle School PTA President Cindy Ardinger declared at the legislative hearing on tax bills, which focused primarily on a proposal to raise the real estate transfer tax. "If you disregard politics, you will vote to increase the transfer tax."

County Executive James N. Robey has insisted that the county needs a new, dedicated source of revenue to pay for sharply escalating requests for school construction. School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's request for $150 million for next fiscal year was trimmed by the school board to $115 million - still a record amount - and that is just a down payment on more than $300 million more the board wants over the next few years.

The question legislators should be asking themselves, said Mary Jane Grauso, the PTA Council's growth and development chairman, is, "Am I a leader or a self-serving leader?"

Howard High PTA President Jerry Bialecki recounted renovation needs at the school's 51-year old building and asked the 11 delegates and senators gathered in the County Council chambers in Ellicott City, "What are you going to do?"

Several legislators opposed to the transfer tax proposal took exception to the pointed remarks.

"The idea of a transfer tax is not political to us," eastern county Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader told Ardinger. "There isn't any question that any of us are against education. We're not quite sure the transfer tax is the right thing to do."

Del. Gail H. Bates, a western county Republican, assured a speaker that she favors a new school to replace 27-year old Bushy Park Elementary in her district, the county's most crowded school. Blaming legislators for a lack of action is "unfair to us," she said. "We have been presented with only one option."

Two anti-tax speakers, Patrick Dornan and James Oglethorpe, heaped scorn on the idea of raising taxes for school construction after the county's big income tax increase approved last spring, but they were in a minority last night.

"Spending is out of control by any measure," Oglethorpe said.

The transfer tax idea "is a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging wound," caused by "uncontrolled growth, poor planning, and misplaced priorities," Dornan said, adding that Robey's administration "has manufactured financial problems in the past and I do not believe a word they are telling us today."

Dornan, who collected more than 7,000 signatures last spring to try to block the Robey-sponsored income tax increase, said the state should repeal the $1.3 billion Thornton Commission education plan and repeal the state "maintenance of effort" law that requires counties to keep school spending no lower than the previous year's levels or lose state funding.

The delegation has scheduled a vote on various bills to raise taxes for schools at a meeting in the George Howard Building at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3.

Five local bills suggest different ways of helping to raise money.

One is Robey's renewed request to increase the real estate transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent, and use the money to borrow $195 million over three years and pay off the debt. The plan was strongly opposed last winter by county Realtors, and the bill died after all three senators refused to support it.

The other four bills under discussion last night are sponsored by west Columbia Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who wants loopholes closed that allow businesses to sell large properties - such as nine of Columbia's village centers - without paying transfer taxes. This is done by creating a corporation to own the property and then shifting ownership of the corporation, rather than the property.

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