Maryland tackling challenge of BRAC

Lawmakers seek ways to pay for roads, schools as defense jobs grow

January 24, 2007|By Justin Fenton and Timothy B. Wheeler | Justin Fenton and Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporters

Gov. Martin O'Malley and General Assembly leaders have turned their attention to the roads, schools and other needs created by a looming influx of tens of thousands of military-related jobs, but are in search of a way to pay for them.

This week, O'Malley gave Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown his first major assignment: Get a handle on the challenges created by the 40,000 to 60,000 jobs expected to be created in Maryland by the Base Realignment and Closure process, or BRAC.

And today, a panel of lawmakers will hear from planning and business development experts on the challenges that lie ahead. Legislators are considering initiatives that - among other things - would allow the speedy construction of projects related to military job growth.

"We've got some lead time, but not a whole lot," said Timothy Armbruster, president of the Goldseker Foundation, which has prepared a study of BRAC growth. "We better get serious about this or we won't be able to take advantage of the good fortune coming our way."

While local governments in Harford and Anne Arundel counties and elsewhere have been planning for the military jobs, O'Malley's announcement marks the highest-visibility statewide effort to date.

O'Malley asked Brown to head a newly created sub-Cabinet of planning, transportation and other state officials to come up with ideas for handling the challenge.

But even Brown, the governor's point man and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, isn't sure where the discussion will head.

"It's unlikely legislation would need to be introduced this session," Brown said. "I need to immerse myself a little more deeply before I can comment."

Hanging in the balance is the quality of life for the new residents and those already here. To accommodate thousands of new Marylanders and their families, state and local governments will have to build schools and roads, deliver water and pipe away waste. Firefighters, police, doctors and others will be needed.

But with Maryland facing a billion-dollar gap between tax revenues and scheduled expenses in the next few years, money to pay for those services is in short supply. O'Malley has said that he will not raise taxes this year.

At the start of last year's Assembly session, officials were celebrating the news that Maryland would be the recipient of thousands more jobs, part of the military's plan approved in November 2005 to build specialized centers for defense operations while cutting costs.

Maryland was considered a winner; many states lost jobs.

Since then, some counties have formed task forces to study their needs, which have largely been determined. Now, it's the state's turn.

Brown is scheduled to meet today with J. Michael Hayes, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general hired by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development in 1999 to monitor federal, state and local actions that affect Maryland military installations.

"I believe this session will mostly be a discussion of the things that will be required to make this happen," said Hayes. "This is now the beginning of the dialogue between counties and the state of their [respective] needs. The counties are in a position to move forward and articulate what their needs are."

In separate hearings over the next week, legislative committees will be briefed on BRAC-related issues.

Among the broader initiatives being promoted by Maryland counties is a mechanism to allow the legislature to rush projects deemed crucial, such as roads.

"Getting approval for transportation projects can be a six-year process, so we need the option of fast-tracking to help those come on board as quickly as possible," said Roxanne Lynch, Harford County's director of government and community relations.

The Greater Baltimore Committee has urged state officials to make BRAC planning a priority, endorsing the idea to streamline the permit process for related projects and create a legislative commission.

"BRAC presents us this tremendous opportunity, but we have to make sure we work in a fashion that we maximize the potential and realize the true benefits it has to offer," said Donald C. Fry, the group's president.

Many private-sector and on-post jobs tied to military bases pay well, and economic development experts say the state will reap sales, income and property taxes from new arrivals.

But Fry cautioned that state and local governments need to act promptly so that the surge in population does not undermine the quality of life of current residents.

"The approach of putting the lieutenant governor in charge, which gives it a high profile and power to deal with multiple agencies on this issue, makes all the sense in the world," said John W. Frece, associate director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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