Schools funding source in focus

Building-projects money is at issue

Merdon, Wallis agree on need

Ulman says he is `not sure at this point'

September 24, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

At a time when the proceeds from a two-year old excise tax on new homes are running out, two candidates for Howard County executive said last week that a new funding source is needed to help pay for school construction and renovations.

Republican Christopher J. Merdon said he favors a new impact fee on development. Independent C. Stephen Wallis said he would work with the General Assembly delegation to work out sustainable funding for schools and other infrastructure, if elected in November.

Both men said they are generally against raising taxes, though Merdon, who has strong financial support from developers, lately has been articulating a softer stance on that issue.

Asked later, Democrat Ken Ulman hedged on seeking a new funding source.

"I'm really not sure at this point," though that is "quite possible," he said. Ulman added that he is committed to "finding the resources to improve our schools."

Merdon mentioned the issue at a candidates forum sponsored by the North Laurel Civic Association held at Murray Hill Middle school last week.

"I would work with the General Assembly to build a more sustainable fund" for school projects, Merdon said.

Elaborating after the forum, Merdon said the excise tax is "not enough. It's proven to be a Band-Aid."

Revenue from the excise tax allowed the county to borrow $60 million for schools by selling bonds that will be paid off over the next two decades, using the levy's receipts.

County legislators three years ago rejected a proposal from County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, to increase the broader real estate transfer tax on all home sales, new and used. The higher receipts from that tax would have allowed the county to borrow $200 million for a dedicated school construction fund.

School officials said all of the excise tax money has been used, but they will need $99.6 million next fiscal year to continue renovating older schools and building more classroom additions.

"If you defer them [projects], costs escalate, and needs continue to grow," said school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.

For the next school year, Cousin is seeking $18.9 million to renovate Mount Hebron High School; $10.9 million for a new auditorium and renovations at Glenelg High; and $32 million for renovations at Clarksville Middle and Worthington, Clemens Crossing and Waterloo Elementary schools.

Joshua Kaufman, the school board chairman, said a dedicated funding source is needed, but because most of the projects in the next few years will be renovations, it is not clear that new development is the culprit.

"If you look at our long-range capital improvement plan, there are highly significant needs at our older schools," he said. Renovations are driven by the fact that more than half of the buildings are more than 25 years old, Kaufman said. The county is trying to keep older buildings up to date technologically, while also maintaining them well, he said.

At the forum, Merdon repeated his standard criticism of higher taxes, especially the 30 percent income tax increase Democrats pushed through three years ago.

"We can't go back to the citizens time after time after time for more money," he said.

But on some occasions, he said, he has supported higher taxes.

"Some of them were good. Some of them we really needed -- like the excise tax," he said at a Business Women's Network luncheon forum Wednesday at a Columbia hotel.

Ulman criticized the impact-fee notion.

"How much more impact fees can we tack on? We're talking about housing affordability. The builders just pass it on," he said.

Builder Harry L. "Chip" Lundy, whose family and business have donated $8,000 to Merdon's campaign, is not happy about the idea of another levy on new homes, especially because some enrollment growth is the result of younger families buying older homes.

"I would oppose what he said there. I would tell him that homebuilders have more than paid their fair share of the additional costs [from development]," he said.

"I'm in favor of great schools because the schools and the facilities Howard County offers are the reasons people live in Howard County. Let's support the schools, but let's balance it with a tax that distributes the burden more fairly."

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