Solution for school construction funds stalls

Legislators disagree on taxes and timeline

3 senators to ponder issue

Howard County

February 05, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Instead of solving Howard County's school construction funding quandary, local state legislators appeared more confused than ever yesterday after a joint delegation meeting in Annapolis.

More questions emerged from the session than answers, and after 45 minutes the burden of finding a solution was left to the county's three senators to solve by next week.

"There's so many issues there, it's kinda hard to separate them all out," said state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman.

"We have to decide what kind of tax, how much tax and whether to have a dedicated pool" of money for school construction.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article published yesterday in the Howard County edition of The Sun about efforts to raise more money for school construction, the first name of county lobbyist Herman Charity was incorrect. The Sun regrets the error.

But instead of whittling down the choices after a series of straw votes last week, the nine delegates and senators present seemed to reverse course, re-opening debate on some contentious issues while limiting their choices with new straw votes.

County Executive James N. Robey wants to increase the real estate transfer tax to create a fund dedicated only to school construction. Money raised would be used to borrow up to $200 million over the next few years and then pay off the bonds.

Kittleman seemed to knock the heart out of that idea yesterday when he and fellow Republican state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader opposed a dedicated fund in a new straw vote. Kittleman said he prefers that any new revenue go into the county's general fund. The county's third senator, Democrat Edward J. Kasemeyer, was absent. The three senators and eight delegates must separately approve any local legislation.

"That's a horrible mistake if that's carried through," Robey said after the vote. Like the county's excise tax that is dedicated to road repairs, Robey wants a fund he can tell taxpayers would be only for school construction. With the school board requesting $115 million for construction - double the current amount - for next fiscal year, Robey says he needs help to keep pace with growth.

But the senators rejected any higher taxes last year. Although county legislators seemed more receptive to providing a new revenue source this winter, the process is proving far from smooth.

Last week, the legislators took a straw vote that seemed to kill the transfer tax, leaving an impact fee or excise tax on new homes as the remaining choices.

But yesterday, Schrader said that if the impact of higher closing costs produced by a transfer tax could be stretched over time, she would not oppose it.

That seemed to reopen debate on the transfer tax. "It's on life support," said Herbert Charity, Robey's chief lobbyist.

But Robey said spreading payments over time "wouldn't give us the money we need."

After the straw vote defeating the dedicated school construction funding, Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat, objected.

"Personally, I thought we're trying to raise money for school construction here," he said. "I don't want to do a general tax increase."

A dedicated fund "is a messy way to do it," Kittleman said.

"It's messy, but that's what we were asked to do," shot back Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat.

Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo said that the county's excise tax for road repair money is making things worse because improving roads helps development, which brings more children to county schools.

The legislators then debated whether to impose an excise tax per square foot or by price of a property, and whether to include commercial property sales. No decisions were reached.

Quinter's suggestion that the whole issue be shifted to the County Council via enabling legislation was ignored.

The House delegation chairman, Del. Frank S. Turner, and fellow Democrat James E. Malone Jr. said they believe sales of existing homes should be included in a tax increase because younger families are bringing children to homes they buy from older couples.

But tax-increase opponents complained that those issues had been settled, they thought, in last week's straw votes.

"The senators kill everything we do," Pendergrass complained at one point.

"It's not up to us to come up with a solution," Schrader replied.

"The reality is you guys killed it last year," Quinter said.

"We're sitting here today and we really can't do anything," Pendergrass said, prompting a promise from Kittleman, who had hoped the group could reach a consensus.

"I propose the three of us [state senators] get together this week and come up with a united solution," Kittleman said.

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