Howard Week

February 13, 2005

Board of Education extends moratorium on open enrollment

Following a staff recommendation, the Howard County Board of Education voted last week to extend a moratorium on open enrollment in its public schools.

Amid criticism that the practice was elitist and benefited only certain school communities, the board had placed a freeze on the option since 2000. But there are a few exceptions, including assigning students to schools out of their districts for safety and disciplinary reasons.

Under a minor change approved by the board on Thursday, parents who apply for a child's transfer to an area where a home is being built or purchased may be asked to pay tuition or return the child to the former district if the purchase is not settled within 60 days.

Rakes fails to disclose ties before panel's vote

A Howard County councilman who strongly supported granting a liquor license to a constituent who planned to open a restaurant in Oakland Mills never told his fellow council and liquor board members that the applicant was his political campaign treasurer.

Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat who doubles as liquor board chairman, claims he replaced Haluk "Alec" Kantar as his treasurer before the license case came up in November. But state records listed Kantar as Rakes' campaign treasurer from September 2003 until Tuesday, when Salman Hussain officially took over. In Howard, County Council members also sit as the liquor board.

The failure to disclose the relationship or abstain from voting on the liquor license does not appear to violate the law, but it raises ethical questions.

"It doesn't really pass the smell test that this could be overlooked," said James Browning, director of Common Cause/Maryland. "It's a big problem if he can push his campaign treasurer's business."

Rakes was the only board member to defend and vote for Kantar's application, which was rejected, 3-1. Rakes called his failure to disclose his relationship with Kantar an "oversight" that he now agrees was an error of judgment.

"My understanding was that I did not have a relationship [with Kantar] at the time of the voting," he said. Disclosure is "the right thing to do. I forgot to do that. It was an oversight on my part."

Tax-break bill for seniors faces uncertain future

The Robey administration's bid to create a Howard County Revenue Authority moved closer to reality in Annapolis, but another local bill to give senior citizens a break on property taxes faces an uncertain future.

The tax bill's sponsor, Republican Del. Gail H. Bates, amended it to raise the age of eligibility to 65 and limit the amount of tax relief - both designed to cut costs. With the changes, Bates estimated the county might lose up to $2.2 million annually, but Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said the cost might be closer to $6 million.

The original bill would forgive half the property tax bill for seniors 60 and older.

In addition to raising the minimum age, Bates' amendments would limit the tax relief to 30 percent off for seniors who have lived in the same house for at least 20 years, 40 percent off for people in their homes 25 years, and a 50 percent discount for those in the same residence at least 30 years.

Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, indicated that he was ready to vote against the bill.

"If someone has been in their house for 20 years, they are not exactly poor in Howard County," he said. "I have a relative who bought a house for $100,000 and recently sold it for $900,000. "Many seniors in Howard County have become very wealthy," he said.

A final vote was delayed until this week. In discussing the revenue authority, county legislators unanimously backed a series of amendments that were negotiated with County Executive James N. Robey over the past several weeks.

But a vote on the bill was delayed until this week.

From Enchanted Forest to happily ever after

After spending years in limbo, Mother Goose, Papa Bear and Cinderella's mice finally got their happy ending along with several other fairy-tale figures.

Left over from the long-closed Enchanted Forest theme park, the wooden and fiberglass characters had languished behind a chain-link fence in Ellicott City, beaten by the weather and vandals.

Last week, the company that owns the land announced it would donate the park's fairy-tale figures so they could entertain children at Clark's Elioak Farm.

Thursday's move, a four-mile trip, required a trailer, a dozen strong volunteers and a few large trucks.

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