Carroll politicians carry conflict to Annapolis

Residential growth, redistricting heart of unusual battle

March 04, 2006|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

An unusual political rift among Republicans in Carroll County has spilled over into the State House and is threatening to stall the reorganization of the local government approved by voters and impede the county's budget process.

Three times in the past few weeks, the county's three commissioners went to Annapolis to testify against bills proposed by Carroll's legislative delegation -- an extraordinary sign of disunity in Annapolis, where politicians from the same regions typically form a united front to secure their share of the state budget.

Bonds between local leaders and state officials are often strained, but "this goes beyond the usual," said Tony Roman, a political science teacher at Carroll Community College. "These people are definitely not looking on the same page. There is probably political motivation behind it."

One commissioner said the rift is reflective of a larger fight across the country among the GOP's conservative and moderate factions.

"This is Republican versus Republican and a reflection of what is going on in Washington," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "There is a real break between the neo-conservatives and the more moderate, traditional Republicans."

At issue are two contentious measures dear to the hearts of Carroll leaders: how to raise revenues to accommodate growth in one of the region's fastest growing jurisdictions and how to draw the boundaries ordered by voters in a 2004 referendum. Voters chose to expand the three-member board of commissioners to five.

But the issues have been muddied by deeper philosophical battles.

The chairman of the county's delegation in the state Senate, Sen. Larry E. Haines, said the county commissioners "listen to people who provide services and ask for money."

The county is flush with revenues, he said, pointing to a $12 million surplus this year, and it can afford further reductions he would like to impose.

But Minnich disputes that, saying Haines and his supporters in Annapolis are not pursuing an agenda of "frugal government."

"Their purpose is to dislodge the people in the County Office Building. Haines has never been supportive of us. What we propose, he finds fault with," Minnich said.

The problems are inherent in the "old-style" commissioner form of government, said Herb Smith, political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.

"The commissioners are very dependent on the Annapolis delegation, where the power is," Smith said. "In 2002, the county elected commissioners with forceful independent minds who are coping with significant growth pressures."

Minnich and his commissioner colleagues were elected on a promise to manage growth. They enacted a one-year moratorium and put in place measures that they hope will allow them to catch up with the demands of a county that has grown by nearly 20,000 residents since 2000. About seven of every 10 homes sold in the last year were to people moving into the county. Residential growth produces higher costs for maintaining and expanding infrastructure.

"A population growth of that magnitude poses real consequences for the commissioners, who have all the responsibility, but very little power," Smith said. "It is a very unenviable position. Unfortunately, the legislature in its traditional anti-tax position is not seeing those pressures in the same way."

All three commissioners are expected to seek re-election this year when the board expands to five members, but like other prospective candidates, they have yet to file for the seats.

The five new commissioners will be elected by districts, which the legislature must define. Until those districts become law, no commissioner candidate can officially campaign. Haines has proposed a district map that ignores the recommendation of a redistricting committee and the endorsement of all eight town mayors.

The three commissioners, four mayors and dozens of residents traveled to Annapolis last month to oppose the delegation's map bill and to lobby for an alternative map that they said more closely reflects the will of the people.

Haines expressed surprise that the commissioners arrived unannounced, but he dismissed their efforts.

"Basically, this opposition causes delays," Haines said.

Haines, owner of a Westminster real estate business, has consistently opposed the commissioners' efforts to raise revenues through a transfer tax on home sales. That tax would relieve the burden on existing homeowners and make growth pay for growth, the commissioners said.

"We have been looking for ways to raise revenues, to take care of facilities without falling behind," Minnich said. "We have fixed things without raising taxes. We are catching up to keep up. But we have schools, parks and senior centers to build, and there are rising costs to everything."

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