New council gets the word

Members elected this month receive briefings on county issues at retreat

November 29, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Seated alphabetically in the Belmont Conference Center's carriage-house meeting room, the five newly elected Howard County Council members listened attentively to briefings on everything from local sign regulations to an employment crisis prompted by high living costs.

Orientation for the incoming council members was an overnight, two-day retreat at the Elkridge center - a chance to learn more about their jobs, meet county bureaucrats and get to know one another better.

Most of what Calvin Ball, Greg Fox, Mary Kay Sigaty, Jen Terrasa and Courtney Watson saw and heard were broad-brush summaries featuring information that many already knew. Except for Ball, who was appointed to the council in April, all the other members are rookies.

"This information is good," said Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat. "I found it useful."

Despite being new to a council that represents Howard's burgeoning population of more than 270,000, the county still is a small place in some ways, as County Solicitor Barbara Cook made clear in addressing the new members.

"My daughter was in Mary Kay's Girl Scout troop" years ago, Cook said.

Cook said she got to know Fox a bit when they sat side by side at a recent county dinner and had a nice conversation.

Terrasa was an intern in Cook's Office of Law a decade ago, and the solicitor said she served with Watson on the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance committee a few years ago. She has known Ball since he joined the council this year.

The group, which will be sworn in Monday night at Centennial High School, did learn some new things.

Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority, told the members that a large company headquarters that controls 600 jobs with an average salary of $90,000 is about to announce a move to Howard from a nearby jurisdiction, once a seven-story office building is constructed in Columbia's Gateway Office Park.

Acting Police Chief William McMahon said that when the council members take office they are likely to hear complaints mostly from people angry about speeders in residential neighborhoods, youth loitering and animal-control problems.

Sigaty offered a tip of her own to Fire Chief Joe Herr.

"Give me a piece of paper, and I'll lose it," she said. "Send me an e-mail, and you'll get an answer pretty quickly."

Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, got down to brass tacks quickly, asking McMahon what percentage of the overall budget his department represents compared with other area counties.

From jail populations to storm drains, the new members learned the ropes, though one theme popped up repeatedly - the high cost of housing and its effects.

"The labor force is the single biggest issue in economic development," said Ed Ely, a former Rouse Co. official who runs a commercial development firm and briefed the council on the county's big-picture prospects.

"We have a labor shortage," he said, a point reinforced by McMahon and school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.

"If you attract new jobs but limit homes, it ignores a contradiction," Ely said. "We could kill that golden [economic] goose. Housing and job growth go hand in hand."

To make things worse, Howard County is the only county between Baltimore and Washington without mass transit, making it harder for workers to get to local jobs from other places.

Cousin said the county is facing a crisis in attracting and keeping custodians, school bus drivers and teachers, despite starting salaries for teachers that are double from what they were two decades ago.

"In 1986, at $19,000 a year, our teachers could afford to live in the county," Cousin said. "Now, at $40,000, they can't, unless they live with you all."

Despite that need, Leonard Vaughan, the county housing director, noted that some residents oppose subsidized housing for working families with incomes from about $30,000 to $50,000 if the units would be built near them.

"We've have the smallest department, but we can be the biggest headache," Vaughan said.

The incoming council members said the briefings were valuable.

Fox, a western county Republican, said he participated in a Leadership Howard County program, which gives interested private people information and tours involving many of the same public services.

"The only department head I don't know is Chief McMahon," he said. "They've done a good job putting all that [leadership information] into perspective."

"A lot of it was a refresher," said Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who with Sigaty has years of experience as a school board member and a community activist.

Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said she is getting "names and faces together."

The few questions from council members does not mean they don't have any, she added.

"It means we have hours of questions," Terrasa said.

"I'm keeping a list of questions," Watson added.

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