Glassman pushes for taxes to repair schools

Parents show support for rise in homeowner fees

January 11, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

After listening to the pleas of parents, teachers and students who turned out in force at a public hearing to show their support for a bill to improve public schools, Del. Barry Glassman said he is only "cautiously optimistic" that a new school funding proposal will be approved this year.

Glassman is chairman of the 11-member county legislative delegation. He said that he has his work cut out for him in coming weeks to bring the delegation together in support of a bill that would give the Harford County Council the power to levy new fees and taxes to pay for the construction of new schools and to renovate others.

"During my first 2 1/2 weeks, I will be spending much of my time trying to shepherd this through and getting a consensus among the House and Senate members," Glassman said of the General Assembly session that begins Wednesday.

The bill stems from a unanimous request by the County Council for new revenue to help pay for school construction.

It has the administration's support. County Executive James M. Harkins called it "critical to meeting the needs of our students now and in the future," in a letter to lawmakers listing his legislative priorities for the session.

The County Council has asked the delegation to give it the authority to impose several fees related to homeownership.

They include an impact fee that would be imposed on homes built in the county and an excise tax on new homes, the amount of which would be determined by the size of the house.

Council members also want the power to increase the rate of the transfer tax related to the sale of new and existing homes from 1 percent to 1.5 percent.

Last, they want the authority to repeal the first $30,000 transfer tax exemption for first-time homebuyers.

Council President Robert S. Wagner has asked the General Assembly to give the council authority to raise revenue and to let the council decide which fees it should impose.

Glassman held the public hearing on the proposed legislation Monday night to give the public the opportunity to voice opinions on the school-funding bill without traveling to Annapolis.

More than 200 residents attended. They filled the council chamber, and some stood in the vestibule.

Susan Cook of Abingdon was the first to speak at the hearing. She told the attending delegates that there are "a cascading set of maintenance problems, some annoying and others threatening to personal health and safety" at Bel Air High School.

She said the windows and doors and electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning infrastructures at the school are at the end or have exceeded their life expectancies and functional capacities.

Vicki Manning, who lives just south of Bel Air, said she first learned of the situation at Bel Air High when her oldest son was in elementary school. She thought the problems would be fixed by the time her son was in high school.

"OK, so I was naive," she told the delegates. "He is now a senior. The same building is still there, and it still needs major renovations."

She expressed concern that her daughter, a fourth-grader, will be going to a high school with limited air conditioning, rodents in the lockers and a public address system "that works most of the time."

Robert S. Magee, president of the county Board of Education, told the lawmakers that there will be further deterioration of school buildings and continued overcrowding if new funding is not found.

Cindy Mumby, also of Bel Air, told the delegates that they have a "constitutional obligation" to properly fund public education.

She told the lawmakers that one area where Harford County ranks high in the state in school spending is on building repairs. "That's like spending to put a new transmission in an old jalopy," she said.

Craig Powell, who has two children in Prospect Mill Elementary School, said contributed to what county officials are calling "a school crisis."

"I'm one of the problems," he said, explaining that he moved to the Bel Air area from the Hamilton section of Baltimore three years ago and added two new students to the school system.

"I'm willing to pay additional revenue" to help improve schools, he said.

Powell said an impact fee on houses would not have kept him from moving to the area and would not likely stop others from doing the same.

He said he welcomed the $300 he received from the county as an exemption of the transfer tax on the first $30,000 cost of his home, but said he would be willing to forgo the sum if the money was used to improve schools.

Councilman Robert G. Cassilly told the delegates about a study by economist Anirban Basu that said a $10,000 impact fee on new homes in the county would have no impact on sales. Basu is chairman and chief executive of Optimal Solutions Group, an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore.

Glassman said he was glad to see the large turnout at the public hearing. He said it gave other delegates the opportunity "to see for themselves first hand the frustrations of the parents, teachers and students."

Glassman said the lobbying efforts on the part of the public did not end at the close of Monday's hearing. "I received more than 40 e-mails on this yesterday," he said Thursday. By comparison, he said, he normally receives only two e-mails on a particular bill.

Glassman said he "will be shooting for a vote on the school funding proposal at the delegation meeting in Annapolis on Jan. 30."

"I know the other members of the delegation are giving it serious consideration," he said.

Glassman said if the delegation approves the plan, it would likely be awarded local courtesy and approved by the General Assembly.

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