Republican needs help on tax from Democrats

Political notebook

May 06, 2007|By Larry Carson

County Councilman Greg Fox faces a daunting task if he wants to fulfill his hope of trimming or eliminating a proposed fire property-tax increase for fiscal year 2008.

The Howard County Council's only Republican must win support from at least two Democrats to prevail, while County Executive Ken Ulman can appeal to his fellow Democrats, who supported him in last year's election.

Council members say they are working for the county's benefit and are not driven by political partisanship, but those "D's" and "R's" next to their names do mean something, after all.

"They've all been very open, very congenial," Fox said about his Democratic council colleagues, noting that his suggestions on the recently modified property tax cut for seniors got serious consideration and made a difference.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said politics is not an issue on the council. "I think all of my colleagues are working hard to see that the budget meets the needs of the public," he said.

Ulman wants to raise the county's unusual fire tax - a separate property tax dedicated for fire department use - 3 cents per $100 of assessed home value in the rural west, and 1 cent in the east to unify the rate at 13.55 cents countywide.

His rationale is the promise of major fire service improvements, including a program to bury a number of 30,000- gallon water tanks throughout the rural western county area that Fox represents, an area not served by piped city water.

The proposed improvements could lower fire insurance rates for rural homeowners and avoid major fire damage for lack of water nearby, Ulman has argued. Fox said he wants the upgrades but questions the need for the tax increase.

Other county Republicans say Fox is taking the right approach.

"I think he's doing exactly the right thing, focusing on issues he cares about and not fighting battles that are not winnable," said Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, who served six years on the council.

"Not all the other council members agree on everything either," Kittleman said.

Charles C. Feaga, a Republican who served 14 years on the council, said he also was the lone GOP member in his first term in the late 1980s, but he managed - with help from two Democrats he befriended - to block a major zoning bill that would have sharply limited development of rural areas. Farmers also lobbied hard against the bill.

"You have to go after council members who understand the rural area," Feaga said, noting that members can't afford to be too parochial, especially if they have larger political ambitions.

Fox said he has not been isolated by the Democrats or criticized by fellow Republicans.

"I think everybody understands the position I'm in," he said. "I treat people with respect, present my ideas and do my best to convince."

As the council reviews the budget, Fox is making a list of items where funding might be deferred for a year, at least enough to stave off the tax increase.

How that will play out as choices narrow this month remains to be seen.

"I think that it doesn't make any difference what party the person making suggestions belongs to," said west Columbia Democratic Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty.

"I'd like to think all of us are expressing opinions to each other about what is best," she added.

But with a huge state budget shortfall looming and growing school construction costs and retiree health benefit liabilities to deal with next year, that view is sure to be tested.

Corridor project

The small gathering last week at the end of Dorsey Run Road between two large warehouse-style buildings in Jessup marked the long-awaited beginning of a project that will provide a modern industrial transportation corridor parallel to U.S. 1 from Route 32 north to Route 103.

The ceremonial groundbreaking, presided over by the county executive, was for a $3.5 million, one-mile extension of Dorsey Run Road that will connect Route 175 to Montevideo Road. The new connection is east of U.S. 1 and will allow trucks to avoid that busy highway. It is scheduled for completion early next year.

Work on another segment, a $7 million portion connecting Montevideo Road to Route 103 to the north, is to begin next spring. Most of the money will come from county excise taxes.

Ulman pointed out that the project fits the county's plan to encourage redevelopment and new mixed commercial-residential uses along the U.S. 1 corridor.

That plan would be aided by removing some of the truck traffic from U.S. 1 while opening new, modern industrial and warehouse sites as defense contractors eye the area as part of the federal base realignment.

"It's a real balancing act," Ulman said.

"This transportation corridor opens up a whole new place for people to work," said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the county Economic Development Authority.

Plans for the Dorsey Run Road project began before Thomas John Wilkins, 75, began his civil engineering career with the Howard County government in 1980. Construction isn't expected to be completed until after 2010.

Wilkins, who retired in 2001, attended the groundbreaking. He has continued working as a contract employee to help get the project under way.

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