County Executive James N. Robey yesterday brushed off the suggestion by the governor to strive for a 15 percent property tax cut and instead proposed a 3-cent reduction.
In his eighth and final State of the County address, Robey explained that the governor's call for local jurisdictions to follow his lead and attempt to cut property taxes by 15 percent is "political posturing" and that the county must proceed "cautiously."
"No county in the state could cut its revenue by 15 percent without destroying its ability to provide necessary services to its citizens," Robey told a crowd of about 350 Howard Chamber of Commerce members at Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center in Ellicott City.
If approved in the 2007 budget, the property tax rate would be dropped from $1.044 to $1.01 per $100 of assessed value. That means the tax bill for a house valued at $450,000 would decrease from $4,698 to $4,563.
Robey also kept his promise to veto a bill that would have banned smoking in all Howard County bars and restaurants in four years. He had sponsored a bill that would have enforced a smoking ban within two years - which died in the County Council - and said he felt that the four-year deadline was too weak.
"While opponents to my legislation acknowledged the dangers of secondhand smoke and feigned sympathy toward employees and patrons, they still felt justified in prolonging this health crisis four more years," he said.
Robey said he intends to work with the County Council to create a bill that is a better compromise and explained that he may be wiling to agree to a ban within three years. He would also agree to exempt from the ban smoking in private homes and smoking within 15 feet of the entrances to Main Street businesses in Ellicott City.
County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who co-sponsored the two-year bill, said he was unsure if he would support a ban going into effect within three years, explaining, "I'd have to take a look at the landscape now."
Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon said he was disappointed that Robey vetoed the legislation that "the county worked very hard on."
"With this veto, there is no guarantee that we will ever get smoking reform," said Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.
Ulman and Merdon - along with Democrat Harry Dunbar - are running for county executive.
Robey, who is running for the state Senate, called the 3-cent reduction in property tax "responsible and reasonable." He said the reduction cannot be higher because of a number of budget demands, such as increases in energy, utility and construction costs as well as a $33 million request from Howard County School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.
The property tax cuts are fair, said Pamela Klahr, the president and chief executive officer of the county Chamber of Commerce.
"He's making sure he's frugal and that we don't cut so much that we're not prepared for some of the things he sees coming down the pike," she said.
Merdon said he is pleased that county residents will be getting tax relief but, at the same time, "there are multiple taxes that we should evaluate first before settling in just on a property tax reduction."
Robey also announced he will form a committee that will examine the effect of the thousands of government jobs heading to the region from the nationwide consolidation of military bases. He said he will hire a "czar" to head the group that will look at the Base Realignment and Closure process, in which an estimated 11,400 government jobs are expected to come to Fort Meade, just over the Howard border in Anne Arundel County, and to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.
The group will include representatives from the Board of Education, Howard Community College, human services providers, transportation agencies and the private sector, Robey said.
"It is imperative that we adequately plan for this impact," he said.
Toward the end of his speech, as he was thanking the community for the opportunity to serve, Robey became emotional, taking long pauses. Eventually, he cut the speech short, not finishing about five lines.
Later, in an interview, he said, "It's OK for big guys to get emotional."
Sun reporter Rona Marech contributed to this article.