Ulman tackles budget issues

At hearing, funds for college, buses lake dredging are sought

December 15, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

The Columbia Association wants more county government money to help dredge Lake Kittamaqundi. Howard Community College wants a $40 million health sciences building. And Howard Transit buses need replacing. Those are some of the requests for County Executive Ken Ulman to consider as he crafts his first budget.

No revenue estimates are available for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, and Ulman's first budget is to be announced in mid-April, when the County Council begins its review.

Ulman got an earful from 32 speakers at his first charter-required budget hearing Wednesday night at the George Howard building in Ellicott City, including a continuation of the argument over a proposed community center building at the planned North Laurel Community Park.

A small group of residents who live near the park site, behind Laurel Woods Elementary School near U.S. 1, oppose plans for a large community center there similar to one recently opened in Western Regional Park in Glenwood.

Debbie Clark, the group's leader, said she was notified only recently of the $13.3 million center and suggested that Ulman could use money intended for the park to satisfy some of the other requests.

"We actually came here asking you to withhold funding," Clark said. The proposed building would be too big and would replace woods that buffer her Heather Downs community off Whiskey Bottom Road from the "criminal element" in the area, she said.

If the parkland is developed as planned, "the criminal element will have a paved way to our homes," she said. "I implore you to at least postpone funding."

Ulman assured the opponents that he would investigate. "We'll be asking the recreation and parks folks to respond," he said.

Several other speakers defended the plans, saying the 47-acre park is badly needed and can be modified to meet any objections.

Rob Dewberry, a member of Friends of Western Regional Park, addressed the North Laurel dispute based on his experiences in Glenwood.

"It is deja vu, listening to the objections about North Laurel Park," he said, referring to similar complaints in Glenwood, before the park was built, about lighted playing fields and facilities that might attract outsiders.

"Even residents up there [in Glenwood] who had concerns are very pleased with the park," he said. "Every county resident should go and see the community center. You heard protests several years ago. You do not hear the protests now. It is just fabulous."

Sharonlee J. Vogel, chairwoman of the county Commission on Aging, made a similar point and urged that the park be funded. The community building would be used by senior citizens, too, she said.

Tom Flynn, a 17-year member of the North Laurel Civic Association, a major park booster, said his area "is lacking in a lot of county services" and needs the park.

"Every step along the way is a public process. There has been any number of public meetings. There has been adequate public notice," he said.

What Clark is seeking, he said, is "paralysis through analysis. This has been talked about for 17 years" and needs no further deliberation.

On other topics, Columbia Association vice president Chick Rhodehamel asked Ulman for $200,000 to add to the $100,000 the county gave the CA last year to help pay for dredging Lake Kittamaqundi. No work has been scheduled, but the project should be completed by March 2009, Rhodehamel said.

Angelique C. Graham, a 34-year old cancer survivor who wants to be a nurse, told Ulman that she was placed on a waiting list for Howard Community College's nursing program - despite a nationwide shortage of nurses - because of a lack of space.

Mary Ellen Duncan, president of the college, said that despite two large new buildings on campus, fast-growing HCC has less space per student than any other community college in Maryland, according to a state survey. That is why college officials are seeking funding for a $40 million, 95,000-square-foot health sciences building, funded by matching state and county funds.

Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, asked Ulman to devote more money to inspecting and replacing the bright green Howard Transit buses.

She said she spent several days last month riding buses, and that she found some of them "decrepit," with seats loose and covered in gang graffiti, that need replacement.

Ray Ambrose, the bus system administrator, said more than half of the 26 buses have exceeded the 200,000-mile life predicted for them but have not quite reached the seven years' service that would trigger state approval for replacement. Federal funds have traditionally paid 80 percent of the cost, but state officials, who cut some bus system funding, must approve replacements.

Ambrose said the buses had cost $75,000 each when purchased in 2000 and now sell for $175,000. Despite the problems, Howard's bus system was recently declared the best in Maryland by the Transportation Association of Maryland, a coalition of local bus operators.

Ambrose said he needs two more inspectors to keep the vehicles clean and free of graffiti. Some seat backs have been painted black or brown to discourage vandalism, he said.

A second public budget hearing is scheduled for March.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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