Neighbors split on code

Voters may be asked to decide home rule in November election

July 02, 2006|By LAURA MCCANDLISH | LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTER

Eldersburg residents April Rose and Pat Perkins stand on opposite sides of the debate over bringing more local control to Carroll County.

It's a divisive issue that could appear on the ballot in the November election.

"I don't see the need to rush this," said Rose, 37, a real estate agent who has lived in the county since 1991. "I want those checks and balances to save me from paying more taxes."

Perkins, 76, strongly disagrees. A county resident since 1960, she's tired of watching charter and home rule efforts fail here.

"I find it cumbersome working through the [General Assembly] delegation to get anything done," said Perkins, a retired Girl Scouts council president.

Perkins and Rose were among the 50 residents - mostly retirees and some state delegates and commissioner candidates - who attended a recent information session in Eldersburg on code home rule.

The county commissioners have less than two months to decide whether to place a home rule referendum on the November ballot. If approved by voters, it would grant the board more authority to enact local laws and issue bonds without the approval of the General Assembly.

Code home rule efforts were revived this spring, when the county's all-Republican delegation failed to get a redistricting bill passed through the General Assembly.

"That was just the straw that broke the camel's back," Perkins said.

To dispense information and answer questions about home rule, county officials have organized five public meetings, three of which will be held in Mount Airy, Hampstead and Union Bridge. They will be followed by two mandatory public hearings before the question of a referendum is decided.

One of the biggest fears is that home rule increases government spending, said Victor K. Tervala, a consultant with the Institute of Governmental Service at the University of Maryland, College Park, who is conducting all the information sessions for the county.

Tervala, an attorney and home rule expert, insisted to Eldersburg residents that localized control doesn't equal more spending.

"It has less to do with the form of government you have and more on the people you elect to office," Tervala said.

Still, he admitted the odds are stacked against any home rule measure.

Only six out of 14 attempts to implement code home rule have been successful in the state, Tervala said; charter efforts are even less successful, passing nine out of the 27 times charter has been proposed.

If voters pass the code home rule referendum, they would gain more power to put all local legislation to referendum anytime 10 percent of the county's voters sign off on a petition, Tervala said.

South Carroll Del. Susan W. Krebs, who attended the meeting, said voters deserve the tool of referendum, a right Carroll's eight municipalities already have.

But a charter government doesn't require that 10 percent threshold, said C. Eric Bouchat, 38, a commissioner candidate from Woodbine.

A charter advocate, Bouchat wants the county to hold off on the issue to give voters a choice between charter and code home rule in two years.

"It would be a tremendous disservice to not educate everyone on both issues," said Bouchat, who moved from Arbutus to Woodbine two years ago. "Very few counties move from home rule to charter."

New revenue streams could materialize under code home rule. The commissioners would gain the power to control impact fees on new development and levy excise taxes on development to fund school construction and help preserve agricultural land, Tervala said.

Such taxes would reflect the mindset that growth should pay for itself, he said.

"But even though you get that power, you're not obligated to exercise those powers," said Tervala, who lives in Westminster.

Regardless of the form of government, some issues, such as schools and environmental laws, will always fall under the state's domain, Tervala said.

If the proposed referendum were to be passed in November, Carroll would become the only code home rule county in the region: Frederick County has a Board of Commissioners, while Baltimore, Harford, Anne Arundel and Howard Counties all have charter systems.

That means the General Assembly could still pass laws that only target Carroll. Under state law, the General Assembly can only pass local laws that apply to all code counties in a given region; Carroll would be the only code county in Central Maryland.

Ultimately, "the General Assembly can do anything it wants with this county, whether it's home rule or not," Tervala said.

Even though Charles County - in 2003 the last county to move to code home rule - spent a year educating residents before voting on the question, Tervala insists Carroll has plenty of time before the November election.

"This isn't rocket science," Tervala said. "Most of you have already probably formed your opinions."

Tervala said that none of the six code home rule counties has regretted adopting the measure.

"They have all loved it," he said. "No one has changed back."

To learn more about code home rule and the dates of future meetings, visit http:--ccgovernment.carr.org/ccg/codehome

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

COUNTY GOVERNANCE

Maryland has three forms of county government with varying degrees of autonomy from the General Assembly.

Commissioner

General Assembly has full power to legislate for county.

General Assembly determines number of commissioners.

No bonding authority.

General Assembly can pass tax caps.

Code Home Rule

Commissioners can enact, amend or repeal many local laws.

Commissioners can determine number of board members/ method of their election.

Some authority to issue bonds for capital projects (such as schools).

General Assembly can enact tax caps.

Charter

County council has broad legislative powers.

County charter determines government structure.

Many bond issues go to public referendum; debt may not exceed 15 percent of county's assessable base.

County can establish tax caps.

[Source: Carroll County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender]

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