Summit to focus on local issues

Robey, most area leaders gather to discuss ways to balance services, revenue

Some unsure of its purpose

Transfer tax won't be on agenda, executive says

November 30, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Seeing years of lagging revenues ahead vs. growing demands for service, Howard County Executive James N. Robey plans to assemble virtually all the county's elected and appointed leaders Wednesday for what he called a "Leadership Alliance Summit" to explore solutions.

"With the economic conditions we're facing - the county, the state - we obviously can no longer continue doing business as usual," he said. "While I talk with individual agencies and departments on a regular basis, we've never really sat down and compared the way we do business to look for more efficiencies for all of us."

Because county schools spend about half the money county government raises, education will be a prime topic, though Robey said he is not about to devalue what he views as the county's chief asset.

But while education remains his top priority, he said, other county agencies - especially public safety - can't continue to live on scraps left by the school system. "That cannot continue," he said. In addition, the cost of health insurance is "blowing the roof off of everything," he said.

The gathering is not about Robey's proposal to increase the real estate transfer tax or paying for school construction, he said, except for the indirect effect that borrowing money for construction projects increases annual cash interest payments.

"It's a way for us to come together in an informal way and talk about how we do business as individuals and as a county," Robey said.

School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said that although the county schools "account for more than half the budget, we don't feel like this is something that's directed solely at us. We all share in the same dilemma." He sees the meeting as a way of doing for the whole county government what the schools already do internally.

The series of meetings is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Ten Oaks ballroom in Clarksville, although many elected officials said they won't stay for the whole day.

Although many County Council and General Assembly members said they aren't sure what the whole thing is about, all said they're willing to talk and listen.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who has also served as county executive and a County Council member, said she felt his lunch talk with legislators last month "was a real discussion," and that pleased her. She is hoping for more of the same.

State Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican, confessed she is "a little unclear" about Robey's goal for the day.

"I plan on going for as long as I can. I think anything we can do to bring the communications and understanding to a level we're all more comfortable with is worthwhile," she said.

The idea for the unusual event came from several sources, said Victoria Goodman, the county's information director.

One was a suggestion to look for general budget efficiencies from members of a citizens committee that last summer examined the school construction funding issue.

At a September one-day retreat at the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge, county public works Director James M. Irvin also suggested finding ways for the school system and county government to work together more closely. "There's very little interagency contact. A lot of things we could do jointly. We could find ways to save money," Irvin said.

The perception that the county budget is rife with waste "is not real" he said, but the conference could explore ways of looking for waste.

County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a Democrat and Robey ally, said he anticipates a good discussion, but results may be more long term than immediate.

"It's the kind of thing over the course of time that will keep building on itself," he said.

Guzzone and Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Democrat he worked for when she was a County Council member, recalled a smaller committee she convened roughly a decade ago to find ways to save money in school building design.

Locating plumbing for bathrooms in one area of a building and eliminating some high skylights installed near other high windows were suggestions the group produced, Pendergrass said.

Democratic state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer said that although he would have hoped for a gathering like this before the transfer tax issue erupted last winter, "I'm sure it can't hurt."

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said he is expecting another sales pitch for Robey's transfer tax plan but thinks "it's always good to engage in a dialogue."

"It looks like a creative idea," said east Columbia County Councilman David A. Rakes, a Democrat. "We're running in some very turbulent water here," he said.

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