Proposal for new revenue authority spelled out

Legislators question scope of Robey's plan

Howard County

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

Howard County legislators closely questioned Robey administration officials last night about a proposal to create a county revenue authority, and won several quick concessions that would limit its scope.

The measure was among a dozen bills on the agenda at a public hearing in the County Council chambers, ranging from perennial tax issues to new proposals. The bills require passage by the General Assembly and, because they apply only to Howard County, need approval by the county's 11-member state delegation.

County Executive James N. Robey would not object to excluding golf courses from a new revenue authority's operations, his aide and chief lobbyist Herman Charity said in response to a question from Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman.

Howard's budget director, Raymond S. Wacks, added that the administration would also not oppose the legislators adding specific limits to the authority's structure and power, which the proposed bill in its current wording would leave up to the County Council to set.

Wacks also told the legislators that although an authority could issue bonds to build a new county office building, that would be unlikely.

"That would not be a good idea," Wacks said, explaining that an authority is intended as a tool to build facilities for public use that could be supported by user fees, such as parking garages, without incurring more general county debt paid for by taxes.

"This is a long-term tool for the county over the next 20 to 30 years," Wacks said, to provide a vehicle for demands for service from a growing population.

The bill is modeled after the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, Wacks said, though such authorities exist in other jurisdictions, including Baltimore City, and Baltimore and Harford counties.

The bill would be enabling legislation, and the County Council would work out the specific rules, Wacks said. Under Robey's plan, the governing board would be named by the executive and confirmed by the council.

Legislators asked a string of technical questions; one was Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo's query about why the authority would be exempt from the county charter's open-meetings and ethics provisions, and Kittleman's questions about who would pay if it failed or closed with outstanding debt.

Donald Dunn, an advocate for public recreation, pointed out that a similar authority exists in Howard County - the Columbia Association, which is managing $90 million in debt and serves 30 percent of the county's population.

"Don't the remaining 70 percent of the county population deserve the same opportunities and successes?" he asked.

Other bills under discussion last night would allow the school board to charge fees for use of fields to improve maintenance, and another would require pawnbrokers to file reports electronically to the police - rather than on paper - on items bought and sold.

Another measure would raise the marriage license fee to $50 from $35, to increase funding for domestic abuse programs.

Several bills would remove tax loopholes for commercial property transfers and end tax breaks on undeveloped land owned by General Growth Properties Inc., which bought the Rouse Co.

Although several sports league leaders endorsed the field-fee idea, Tom Lawler, president of the Savage Boys and Girls Club, did not.

"We do not want this county to turn into one for the affluent. The whole county is not Clarksville or Ellicott City," he said, explaining that many children in the southeastern county can't afford fees to play ball.

"I don't think we should have to pay" to use school fields, Lawler said, though his 2,400- member club pays $30,000 a year now to use county park fields, which get better maintenance.

Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, told the legislators that the schools can't afford to properly maintain fields, and youth leagues have asked to be charged if the money will be used to improve maintenance.

Only 12 of the 20 local bills submitted so far were discussed last night. A second hearing may be scheduled next month, before the General Assembly convenes, said Democratic Del. Neil F. Quinter, the House delegation chairman.

The county's eight delegates and three senators will vote on the measures at meetings in Annapolis.

The senators chose Democrat Edward J. Kasemeyer as their chairman yesterday - an unusual move because the others are Republicans.

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