Officials discuss Assembly agenda

Commissioners voice concerns on finances to state delegation

`New approach was ... very positive'

Carroll County

October 08, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County commissioners took a new approach this year in preparing for the next Maryland General Assembly session: They presented their concerns to the state delegation in a more relaxed work-session-style meeting yesterday and will hand the state officials a package of formal requests later this year.

The three commissioners and the county's state senators and delegates talked yesterday morning during the well-attended public meeting. The session was cordial despite the officials' differences -- especially regarding the commissioners' renewed request for a county transfer tax on the sale of real estate, which is opposed by state Sen. Larry E. Haines.

The meeting was almost entirely about money -- or rather, the lack of it.

The groundwork was laid in a six-page letter sent to the delegation last week by the commissioners' chief of staff, Steven D. Powell. The letter outlined some of the rising costs that Carroll faces, especially for schools, roads and emergency services.

"This is an extra step," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich, who agreed later with Commissioners Perry L. Jones Jr. and Julia Walsh Gouge that the tone was more constructive than in years past.

"I think the new approach was one that was very positive," Gouge said, in contrast to "when we waited til December.

"We started it early to have an opportunity to better understand where each person is coming from on the issues," she said. "I felt they have a better understanding of what we're facing."

Because Carroll is not a charter government, much of its local legislation must be approved by the General Assembly. A formal proposal has traditionally been given to the delegation in December, about a month before the session opens.

Ted Zaleski, the county's director of management and budget, said the county needs about $250 million for school-construction projects.

Planning Director Steven C. Horn stood before maps banded in brilliant red, showing that about one-third of the county's schools exceed 120 percent capacity and that their surrounding areas are thus deemed inadequate for new development. The red areas are expected to spread when the school board releases projected enrollment figures for 2005-2006 this month.

When these figures arrive, Horn said, "We could be looking at over two-thirds of the county where the schools are close to or exceed 120 percent capacity."

The county also hopes for relief from so-called unfunded state mandates, such as all-day kindergarten, which would generate the need for about 1 1/2 new schools, Gouge said.

"We all in this room agree on the need for flexibility," said Del. Susan W. Krebs, a former school board member, pledging to try to ease the all-day requirement for some children.

Other shortages have resulted from state funding cuts for libraries, mental health services, senior centers and Carroll Community College, which pays lower salaries than all but two of its counterparts in the state, officials said.

Jones said the county maintenance shop has the same number of employees tending equipment that has doubled to 600 pieces in 10 years, and it has only volunteers to mow soccer fields. The Carroll Area Transit System's 35 buses also must be maintained. And last winter, he said, some snow plows sat idle because of lack of staff.

On Tuesday, the commissioners voted to lower the rate of the Homestead Tax Credit to 107 percent in an attempt to reduce residents' future property tax bills in a hot housing market that has led to higher assessments by the state.

Haines, a Realtor, suggested that they might lower it further, to 105 percent, although he said the heated housing market probably has "sort of reached the peak."

Haines also suggested that the county go after uncollected personal property taxes and fees on vending machines. He also questioned why new housing built for residents older than 55 should be exempt from impact fees, other than those for recreation, as many of these residents are quite well off.

The delegation was receptive to a suggested hotel-motel tax, whose revenue would be dedicated for tourism.

The delegates also heard requests from James Shriver, president of the nonprofit Union Mills Homestead Foundation Inc., for legislation to allow a new microbrewery festival there. The homestead was where the county's popular wine festival started more than 20 years ago.

Neal C. Roop, president of Carroll Transit, asked that the service be allowed to take advantage of drastically lower insurance rates available if placed under the Maryland Tort Claims Act, which puts a limit on lawsuit awards. Powell suggested that the nonprofit Humane Society of Carroll County, which acts as its animal control service, also be made eligible for the program.

Gouge said commissioners had tried in the mid-1980s to get approval for a county transfer tax, and then again for the past two years.

"I was looking at all alternatives and operations -- other than a transfer tax," Haines said after the meeting. "I've never supported any tax like that."

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