A levy on new homes urged

$1-per-square-foot charge would help build schools

Vote could come next week

Some call senators' plan insufficient for system

Howard County

February 12, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's state legislators moved closer yesterday to approving an excise tax on new homes to help pay for school construction, but county officials warned that it might not be enough to do the job.

A formal vote could come next week.

The county's three state senators agreed on a $1-per-square- foot charge on new homes that will be paid by builders when they get a permit. Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said later that the proposed revenue of $3.4 million to $3.7 million would enable the county to borrow $58.4 million -- a little more than a quarter of the $200 million the county hoped to raise. The bill would also rebate the new tax for homes selling for less than $200,000.

The legislators, who also unanimously approved a bill to restrict the location of methadone clinics in the county, praised their own efforts at compromising on a new revenue source for the county. But most school advocates weren't quite as effusive, taking the view of Democratic Del. James E. Malone Jr. that "half a loaf is better than none."

"I agree," County Executive James N. Robey said after the delegates met. But Robey pointed out that if the $1 charge is approved, it still leaves "a significant gap in what the county can afford" compared with what the school board needs.

"This [revenue] would be one high school," Wacks said, or two to three elementary or middle schools, and is far less than the $115 million the school board has requested for construction next year.

Robey's original plan was to raise the real estate transfer tax on all home sales, which would produce about $10 million a year that could be used to borrow $200 million over four years. The legislators rejected that approach.

Courtney Watson, chairman of the school board, and Home Builders Association of Maryland lobbyist Tom Ballentine worried that if the county can't afford to build enough schools to end residential development curbs under Howard's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, -- home building could slow and choke off revenue from the proposed tax.

Since the three state senators and eight delegates must agree separately on any bill, the senators effectively control the process through their veto ability.

At yesterday's meeting in Annapolis, it became clear that Democratic Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who last year led the senators to kill the transfer tax idea, inspired the senators' proposal -- even though his two colleagues are Republicans. Kasemeyer did not attend the delegation meeting.

"That's after lots of conversation and lots of compromise," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, the delegation chairman, who said his views lost at every turn. Kittleman opposed creating a dedicated fund for school construction and wanted any new-home tax to be based on price, rather than square footage.

Kasemeyer said later that he is skeptical about a school system that he believes has poorly predicted its needs.

"You look at the fact there's all of a sudden this incredible need for all this money," he said, wondering whether the school board can spend $200 million efficiently and why the board's needs change so drastically from year to year.

"I'm skeptical about the need. The worst thing we can do is raise more money than is necessary," he said. That's why he settled on $1 per square foot, instead of the $2.25 per square foot suggested by Del. Elizabeth Bobo.

Frank S. Turner, the House delegation chairman, pushed for more revenue.

"If we pass this, would we be back in two or three years asking for something else? I want to do whatever we're going to do now," he said, adding that he prefers a $2-per-square-foot charge.

But Kittleman and Sen. Sandra B. Schrader made it clear that the senators were not about to change their minds.

"On the [one] dollar, it's our way or the highway," Kittleman said. Schrader pointed out that the delegates implored the senators last week to craft a proposal and present it. "That's what we did," she said.

And despite discontent from several Democratic delegates, Bobo credited the senators with forging a compromise.

"I think there has been some movement on the part of the senators," she said.

In other action, the legislators took a straw vote that appeared to kill a bill that would require school board vacancies to be filled by election instead of executive appointment. The delegation split evenly, meaning the idea would fail, but the vote was not formal.

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