Party lines add tension to council tax cut vote


October 01, 2006|By LARRY CARSON

The Howard County Council is scheduled to vote on a Republican-sponsored property tax cut bill for seniors 70 and over Tuesday night, but the vote comes as political tensions between the body's two Republicans and three Democrats are reaching the boiling point.

The bill offers to freeze property taxes after a 25 percent cut to seniors with incomes under $75,000. A large number of seniors spoke in favor of the bill at a council public hearing Sept. 19. Commission on Aging members said they, too, like the concept, but suggested delaying consideration until the county gets more data on the cost and the housing needs of seniors.

The two Republican sponsors, Chairman Christopher J. Merdon and Charles C. Feaga, met with members of the commission to discuss their reservations about the bill, but said they're determined to go ahead with a vote now.

Merdon began the meeting by berating the Democrats for not attending what he said he had hoped would be a full-blown work session.

"I did call for a work session for today," he told a small group of officials and citizens in the council's meeting room Tuesday.

"In eight years of County Council, this has never happened - that three members decided to not show up," said Merdon, who also is the GOP nominee for county executive. "I'm disappointed that they [Democrats] denied our request to have an official work session."

Feaga added that in his earlier 12-year stint on the council "we always honored that. If one person asked," there'd be a meeting, he said.

The Democrats sharply disagreed, accusing Merdon of using the meeting to score political points after Merdon and Feaga shut them out of any information about the bill before holding a news conference last month to announce it.

"He has never spoken to me directly about a work session or about any issue," Councilman Ken Ulman said about Merdon. Ulman is the Democrats' nominee for county executive.

"To go out in public to talk about being bipartisan but to fail dramatically to deliver any leadership is just a shame," Ulman said.

Guy Guzzone, who served as council chairman for three of the last four years, said he saw no need for a work session when asked by a council staffer.

"If he wanted us to attend, all he had to do is call me," Guzzone said. "He never talks to us about anything. Here he is at the 11th hour of an eight-year term, and you'd think he'd try to line up the votes ahead of time or give us the courtesy of letting us know he's thinking about this."

Calvin Ball, the third Democrat, said, "Mr. Merdon hasn't spoken to me since I raised concerns about the letter he sent to my constituents unbeknownst to me."

He accused Merdon of "a political ploy," and "arrogance" as chairman.

The Commission on Aging members said the county has no good information on how much the program would cost and what programs might have to be curtailed to pay for it. Merdon replied that a surplus of over $20 million is expected from last fiscal year, more than enough to cover the expected $2 million to $4 million annual cost.

"We're targeting a population whose numbers we don't know - whose needs we don't know," said Ted Meyerson, vice chairman of the commission.

Merdon said no one will know the actual cost until a year goes by and people have a chance to apply. If it proves too costly, future county councils can change the terms of the program.

"You can't make something perfect. You've got to move and do something now," Feaga said in response.


Merdon was assailed Friday by leaders of the Howard County Professional Firefighters Association, Local 2000, for telling voters at a recent candidates forum that the county's public safety training facility under construction at Alpha Ridge isn't needed, and for comparing firefighters advocacy for it three years ago to children who want a swing set in their backyard instead of using a community park.

The candidate also said the $32 million, 800-megahertz communications system "could have been scaled back quite a bit," though he had voted to approve the radio system.

Speaking at Murray Hill Middle School, Sept. 19, Merdon used his opposition to funding the training center in 2003 to make a point that he would be a good steward of public funds. He said a state training facility in nearby Sykesville, Carroll County, would have served the county's needs and saved up to $18 million. That center trains police officers only.

"It was built by the state for the region, but Howard County dipped into your pockets again and said, `Not good enough, we need our own.'"

Later, he said more.

"If you told your firefighters, `Hey, you know we've got this state regional facility that we can use but you can have your own. Just go tell the County Council, you know, that it's too crowded, and they'll give it to you.' What do you think they are going to do?"

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