Council debates housing, smoking

Sharp differences emerge over pair of measures

April 19, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Sharp philosophical differences have emerged on County Council bills addressing the thorny issues of how to provide more lower-priced housing and whether to make all Howard County bars and restaurants smoke-free.

The fate of bills on both issues is uncertain as council members try to focus on them as they also begin studying the county budget and simultaneously deal with selection of a new council Democrat to replace east Columbia's David A. Rakes, who resigned March 31.

The new member will hold the deciding vote on the revived smoking-ban bill, and council Democrats argued at Monday night's public hearing that consideration of the bill should be delayed to give the appointee time to learn about the issue. The swearing-in is scheduled tomorrow night.

The four council members have heard the arguments on smoking twice during consideration of two bills, while the new member has not heard them at all, Democrat Guy Guzzone said. Howard law now allows smoking in physically separate areas.

"The new member will have the opportunity to review the [video] tape for this evening's hearing," replied Republican Christopher J. Merdon, the chairman. Later, another Democrat objected.

"Tonight is generally an act of futility. It's disappointing that this bill had to be rushed in on an emergency basis since we don't have a fifth member up here," said west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, who co-sponsored the original no-smoking bill with County Executive James N. Robey last fall.

Merdon and Ulman are candidates for county executive.

The original bill, which would have banned all smoking in public places by Jan. 1, 2008, was killed on a 3-2 Republican-led majority in which Rakes was the key vote. That same majority then approved a similar bill containing a four-year enforcement delay, which Robey vetoed. Merdon revived the issue this month after Rakes' resignation, saying he wants to deal with the bill again and dispense with the issue because a new Democratic member likely will give the Democrats the voting majority.

"It's extremely ironic that the people who want to get this legislation done as soon as possible are the same ones advocating a delay," Merdon said.

Guzzone then said that the enforcement date is key, not the date it is voted on.

"The business of the county must proceed," Merdon replied. "It's purely political why you want to delay this legislation," he said. The Democrats want to make smoking a campaign issue, Merdon said later.

More complex

The housing issues are more complex. The county is trying to respond to severe housing inflation by providing builders more flexibility - such as building subsidized units in a separate location or paying cash instead, and creating a higher "middle-income" category of subsidized homes. High taxes and condominium fees make including subsidized units in high-income projects impossible, builders have argued.

But some speakers at the hearing said they fear that the middle-income idea could hurt efforts to house the working poor, while others question allowing developers to build subsidized units away from their upscale projects.

"All new developments will be exclusive. I'm nervous about that," said Ulman.

`Creative start'

Stephen Lafferty, the deputy county planning director, said, "This is truly a collaborative effort - a creative start." Lafferty explained that the bill makes more people eligible for moderate-income housing by covering families with incomes from $32,800 to $65,600 a year, instead of current income standards of $36,000 to $57,700. Middle-income would go to about $90,000.

"It's very difficult for me to imagine that people with $65,000 to $90,000 incomes need government assistance," said William Ross, a low-income-housing advocate who serves on the county's Housing Commission.

But two employers supported the bills, saying their workers need help to live in Howard County.

The average wage for the 1,750 employees at Howard County General Hospital is $39,000 a year, and dietary and housekeeping workers average $24,000 a year, said Mary Catherine Cochran, director of the Claudia Mayer Cancer Recovery Center. Brian England, president of British American Auto Care, said his young workers commute from long distances - one from near York, Pa., where housing is cheaper.

Merdon said England's testimony is the main reason he supports subsidized housing.

"That's the single most important reason for me - to provide a diverse work force for business. A lot of people don't want affordable housing in Howard County," he said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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