Amendment to charter likely to face close vote

Measure to make raising taxes harder needs 4 supporters on council

Howard County

July 01, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The discussion was cordial yesterday and the political jabs were delivered with laughter and smiles, but chances for a unanimous Howard County Council vote Tuesday on a charter amendment that would make it harder to raise taxes remained slim at best.

"It's more of a philosophical difference" separating the council's two Republicans from the three Democrats, western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman said at the council's late-afternoon work session in Ellicott City.

The minority Republicans want less spending and the ability to block tax increases, while the Democrats say government flexibility and quality of life are more important.

If the executive and council majority agree on a tax increase, that should be enough, they say.

County Executive James N. Robey, whose 30 percent local income tax increase last year prompted the move to change the charter, has said he will fight to defeat the amendment if it is put on the ballot by council action or a taxpayer petition drive that is under way.

Kittleman said reasonable council members would agree if a dire need for new taxes arose, while west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman asked, laughing, "What if Districts 1 and 5 produce some radical right-wing council members who wouldn't agree to a tax increase under any circumstances?" Those are the two districts now represented by Republicans.

"I trust the citizens of Districts 1 and 5," Kittleman said.

The charter amendment backed by Kittleman and Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon requires four of the five council members to approve any income or property tax increases.

It also requires the county executive to obtain approval from the council before submitting a tax increase.

But four council members must support the charter amendment to place it on the November ballot, and the council's majority Democrats oppose the idea.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone sought some middle ground with two amendments that would carve out exemptions to the proposal to change the charter.

One would take effect if state budget cuts reduced the total amount of state aid, while the other would define quality of life through various public services and exempt the executive for tax increases aimed at merely maintaining those levels.

Several council members said privately that chances are that the final vote will be 3-2, split along party lines.

But the issue could still find its way onto the ballot.

James Oglethorpe, president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association, is trying to gather 10,000 signatures by Aug. 16 to put the Republicans' charter amendment on the ballot regardless of a council vote, and the county's Republican Party is backing the effort.

In other action, the council discussed the annual school enrollment predictions that determine which school areas should remain open to development in 2007 and which should not under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

A wide-ranging discussion ensued, with Guzzone noting with alarm that long-term projections for southeastern county schools have changed substantially since last year, raising old fears that the system of tying development to school enrollments is still not providing predictability.

"The predictability you're looking for is not here," school board Chairman Courtney Watson said. School redistricting around crowded Fulton elementary, for example, could change projections, she and other school officials said.

David Drown, who compiles the enrollment charts, said Emerson, a new mixed-use development in the southeast, isn't producing as many children as expected so far, forcing a drop in enrollment projections there.

But Ulman worried that a new school could be needed near Fulton as the huge Maple Lawn development grows there.

A revised chart given to the council at the meeting would close the Bushy Park and Lisbon school areas in the western county for 2007 - or until school officials decide how to provide more classrooms and obtain land for building them.

The law restricts planning for residential building around schools predicted to be at 15 percent or more over capacity in three years.

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