Transfer tax rise rejected in straw vote

But lawmakers OK bill to enlarge school board

Howard County

January 29, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After a rambling discussion yesterday morning in Annapolis, Howard County's legislators tentatively voted to kill the contentious real estate transfer tax option for raising more school construction money.

However, the legislators formally approved a bill that would enlarge the county school board to seven at-large members by 2006, after rejecting an amendment to have five members elected from County Council districts and two members at large.

"I think the transfer tax is probably dead," said Democrat Frank S. Turner, the House delegation chairman, after a straw vote in which only he and Del. Neil F. Quinter supported the concept that County Executive James N. Robey has been promoting for two years. Revenue from a one-half percent increase in the real estate transfer tax would support borrowing about $200 million for new classrooms over the next four years and then pay off the debt, said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director.

That seemed to leave a surcharge on new-home sales as the only option left, pending next week's joint delegation meeting. The legislators were debating whether to exempt lower-priced housing and new homes for senior citizens as the meeting broke up. Only Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said he opposes all the tax increase ideas under discussion.

On the table are several plans about how to apply a surcharge -- as a charge per square foot or as a $12,000 flat fee on every new home or condominium. Those methods would not produce as much money over the long term as the transfer tax but would satisfy most school construction needs for the next two years, according to Wacks' projections.

Robey, who attended the meeting in Annapolis and answered questions, was not sure after the session where his pleas for financial help are headed. "I have no idea," he said.

The delegation straw votes were not binding but were intended to get a sense of the group's wishes and narrow the list of options, according to Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, leader of the county's three senators.

Robey and school officials, including Courtney Watson, chairman of the school board, and John R. O'Rourke, the school superintendent, were also in Annapolis for the annual Board of Public Works meeting. It is nicknamed the "begathon" because it features local officials from across the state pleading for more school construction money. The board, composed of the governor, state comptroller and treasurer, will make final decisions by May on how to divide the $100 million available statewide.

Few expect much help from the financially squeezed state government this year.

Robey argued that with only $4.3 million in state school construction funding approved, and with no prospect of big cash surpluses, the county cannot afford the $170 million requested -- including $115 million for schools -- for capital projects next year.

"We are behind the 8-ball" financially, Wacks told the legislators.

The new taxes Robey wants are designed to pay for the demands of growth, which include $40 million to complete a new northern high school in Marriottsville next fiscal year, Wacks said. Because of those demands, the county has put off other vital work, such as bridge reconstruction, storm water projects, sidewalk renovation and other repairs, he said.

State Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer questioned the county's ability to spend $115 million for schools in one year because that is roughly twice the amount the school board was given for this budget year.

"I just can't believe they can use $100 million in one year. I'm not trying to be difficult," he said.

But Wacks reassured him.

"One thing the school board is very good at is building schools," he said, noting that the new high school is under construction.

Kittleman repeated his opposition to creating a separate dedicated fund for schools in addition to the county's heavy burden from bond borrowing -- now more than $410 million. But Robey pointed out that a separate bond fund for water and sewer projects has existed for years.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former county executive and County Council member, also issued a familiar warning -- that although county planners and school officials do not see the need for new schools after the next few years, those predictions have regularly proved false.

"One mistake I hope we don't make is to assume we're not going to be building in five years," she said.

"All I can say is, the problem is real now," Wacks said.

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