Harford County officials are pursuing a modest legislative agenda for next year's General Assembly session, with a wish list that includes more money for schools and roads, permission to start some four-year programs at the community college and a call to find an alternative for a gasoline additive that was detected during the summer in Fallston drinking wells.
State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who represents Harford and Cecil counties, noted that officials were realistic with their requests. They were so low-key, she said, that Aberdeen and Havre de Grace "had nothing on their agenda that they wanted us to do. They know the climate."
State legislators met with County Executive James M. Harkins, members of the Board of Education, members of the County Council, officials with Harford Community College and others Wednesday at the Abingdon branch of the public library to discuss their priorities for the coming legislative session, which runs from January to April in Annapolis.
Del. Barry Glassman, who attended the meeting, said county officials kept their wishes modest. "The wish list has gotten smaller over the years," he said. "The county kind of just presented a draw-the-line-in-the-sand type thing. They call it budget security, just don't cut any more."
The focus was on funding for roads and schools, including improvements to the interchange between Interstate 95 and Route 24.
Glassman said the legislative delegation will push for "roughly $20 million" for state funding to help pay for school capital projects.
Of that, about $7 million would go toward the second phase of an extensive modernization and expansion of North Harford High School. "That is probably going to be the biggest job of the delegation, to make sure we do a second payment on the North Harford High School modernization," Glassman said. "We need to make sure that funding is preserved and it keeps moving forward."
Another $8 million would help the county pay for a new Patterson Mill middle/high school, to be constructed off Patterson Mill Road south of Bel Air, he said.
Glassman said capital needs for county schools in the next 10 years could come to about $400 million. In the past few years, county officials have pushed for new ways to raise money to pay for school construction. One such tool is an impact fee, which would be paid by developers who build in Harford County.
Last year, the state gave the county permission to levy the impact fee, and once the details are worked out, it's expected to be put in place in January. But county officials believe the impact fee won't raise enough money, and they want to see an increase in transfer taxes as well.
County Councilman Richard C. Slutzky said Harford levies a 1 percent transfer tax when properties change hands. Half goes toward agricultural land preservation, and half is used for school projects. "We are looking for an additional half-percent," he said.
But state legislators said they would first like to see how the impact fee works before raising the transfer tax. "We want to see them implement an impact fee and then we'll take a look at how much it generates," Glassman said.
In another issue related to the quality of schools, county officials argued that the state needs to improve the retirement benefits package for teachers. "Maryland presently has the worst retirement structure, by far, in the United States," said County Council President Robert S. Wagner.
Slutzky, formerly department chairman for health and physical education at Aberdeen High School, noted that an improved retirement package would attract teachers to the state. Glassman agreed the idea has merit, but said it would be a hard sell during these lean economic years.
Harkins and other officials also talked to the state delegation about the gasoline additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, which has been detected in Fallston wells. Though the levels that were discovered were not considered dangerous, county officials want the state to explore alternatives to the use of MTBE in gasoline.
"Anything we can do to avoid further contamination of water supplies in the future should be considered and ultimately implemented," Wagner said. High levels of MTBE can create a strong taste and odor that make water undrinkable.
Glassman and Jacobs said they were confident that legislation on MTBE would be crafted. "I think everyone and their brother will be introducing legislation about it," said Jacobs.
State legislators also heard from officials from Harford Community College, who gave an update on the search for a president to replace Claudia Chiesi, who is retiring.
"We've been down to four candidates for a while now," said Lee McDaniel, chairman of the board of trustees. "We have made an offer to one of the final four. We're waiting for a response."
The community college is also pushing for permission to create four-year programs in teaching, technology and nursing, a move that has been met with resistance from the state university system, Glassman said.
He said the HCC programs would not compete with university programs, and would be less expensive and more convenient for many people. "You know," he said, "in Annapolis, sometimes it just might not be ripe enough on the vine yet, but I think it's close."
In other issues, the state delegation was also asked to raise the fees for liquor licenses, which have not been increased in about 20 years, and to give municipal police officers the power to stop cars outside their municipal borders in the case of motor vehicle violations that could result in death or serious injury.
Because most of the requests are modest and reasonable, Jacobs said, "I think Harford County will do well this legislative session."