Carroll 101 teaches county civics

Residents get a chance to learn about inner workings of government


Nearly 40 residents have given up their Tuesday evenings for the past few weeks, all drawn to Carroll County's new communitywide civics course.

The class, Carroll 101, draws participants from across the county and teaches them about the inner workings of the county government.

The group is heavy on senior citizens and mothers, and all are vocal about what they consider pressing issues: property taxes, water shortages, school construction and development.

"With all the growth here, there needs to be a plan," said Cheryle Franceschi, a Carroll 101 student who lives in Eldersburg. "I'm coming here to learn what the plan is."

Tuesday was the third of six sessions in the program, first launched this year with Carroll Community College.

Participants said the course represents a refreshing spirit of transparency in the county. Under previous commissioners, closed meetings were more prevalent and Cabinet members less accessible. The county's public information office - dissolved for three years until August 2004 - has launched a cable access television station, monthly newsletter and speakers bureau.

Despite serving four terms in the state legislature, former Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat who moved to Gamber over a year ago, has come to study up on Carroll's "hodgepodge style of county government, with a smattering of municipalities."

"It's just like night and day from the charter system in Montgomery," Dembrow said.

During a talk by Ted Zaleski, county management and budget director, a Hampstead resident voiced concern that a property tax increase unfairly targets people on fixed incomes, such as the elderly.

"If my income went up from $100,000 to $200,000, a raised income tax is fair," said George Miller, 58, a small-business owner. "But to keep raising property taxes up and up hurts people."

Zaleski said lowering the cap on the Homestead Tax Credit by 2 percentage points would be problematic because the county derives half its revenue from property taxes. A bill has been introduced in both houses of the General Assembly to lower the cap.

"If we end up with a 5 percent cap, we'll create a sustainable plan, but it will impact the services we provide," Zaleski said.

Michelle Carroll, president of Carrolltowne United, a group opposed to a long-planned townhouse development in Eldersburg, asked if Carroll County public schools use forward funding. She was referring to Howard County's habit of footing school construction bills, with the hope that the state will later reimburse the county as funding becomes available.

In the real world, Zaleski said, that scenario doesn't play out so smoothly.

"We are spending more on schools than we ever expect to see from the state," he said. "But the reality for Howard is the same for us. We're unlikely to see that money come after the fact."

Another woman wondered if it was appropriate for local recreation councils to encourage their members to take political stands. Diane Gleason said she was referring to the Mount Airy Youth Athletic Association because the group's president had e-mailed members, urging them to support Mount Airy's annexation of the Zeltman Farm.

Though he didn't delve into that issue, Jeff R. Degitz, recreation and parks director, discussed what he called the increasing trend of coaches and parents "going berserk" at sporting events. But children will not be held responsible, Degitz assured the crowd.

"We don't want to punish the child unless they created the problem," Degitz said.

The previous Carroll 101 course was held at Westminster Senior Center, where Jolene Sullivan described her work with the Department of Citizen Services. She clarified confusion over Section 8 vouchers, saying that Carroll only receives 549 vouchers. Section 8 housing has a five-year waiting list, Sullivan said.

Later that evening, the issues of water and sewage treatment and road maintenance made for an animated presentation from J. Michael Evans, county director of public works. Evans had participants draw lines all over an unfolded Carroll map, identifying the county's four quadrants, main state roads and eight independent municipalities.

Though not responsible for state or municipal roads, the county maintains about 1,000 miles of roads, Evans said. Only 100 miles are unpaved.

"Fifteen years ago, we had 200 miles of gravel roads," Evans said. "We're eating them up as quickly as we can. Gravel roads are very expensive to maintain and even more expensive to rebuild."

Carroll 101 will be fine-tuned, offered again next fall and possibly in the spring of 2007, said Cindy Parr, special assistant to County Commissioner Perry L. Jones.

"This has allowed the county to show with a broad brush how we approach everything we do," Parr said.

At this week's session, Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning and Public Safety Administrator Scott Campbell will lead an interactive presentation at the Board of Education, followed by a tour of the nearby Carroll County Detention Center.

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