2 difficult issues due to return for debate

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

September 16, 2007|By Larry Carson

Two politically touchy Howard County issues left hanging last spring are overdue for a return to public discussion.

First, November will be a year since a citizens task force delivered a report with more than a dozen suggestions for ways to provide more affordable housing for limited-income working families. Impatient County Council members vowed in June to come up with some solutions if the Ulman administration doesn't -- and it appears legislation is headed for introduction next month.

The second difficult issue is the need for a new county government and courthouse complex in Ellicott City.

The county can't afford to replace its aging, obsolete offices and courthouse while also paying for increasingly expensive school renovations without some new revenue source, and none is on the horizon.

County Executive Ken Ulman told a meeting of the Glenwood Lions Club on Sept. 6 that the office complex issue came up recently when he found himself in an "intense conversation with Circuit Court judges," who are pressing for a new, larger courthouse as part of the project. The judges are worried that the seven-year-old proposal might again be shelved because of its huge cost -- last estimated at about $225 million.

"The county executive has made a decision to not have the architects proceed beyond design development" to construction drawings, said administrative Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure. Without more space, there can be no added judges or masters to keep up with a growing workload, she said.

Despite questions from several skeptical County Council members in May, the council approved $16.6 million in the current capital budget as a placeholder for the project, but public works Director James M. Irvin's promise to return with a plan by late summer remains unfulfilled as Ulman ponders the problem.

"I still haven't made a final decision," Ulman said. "We'd have to break it into phases" because of the expense.

A new county office building and parking garages would be done first, with a courthouse in a second phase.

So far, council members seem content to wait.

"It was always the intention to have the money there in case we could move forward," said Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat. "I'd much rather see a viable, realistic plan than a rushed plan."

The housing issue has proved frustrating for council members and housing advocates, though legislation is in the works, Ball and Ulman said.

The citizens task force report suggested 16 ways to produce more homes and apartments that working families can afford, but no legislation based on those recommendations has been introduced.

Meanwhile, although fewer homes are being sold in Howard, the prices continue to climb. In August, the average sale price of a Howard home was $471,000, according to latest real estate figures. Rents also are climbing, while the federal Section 8 rent subsidy program slowly shrinks.

"We're impatient as all get out," said William A. Ross, a veteran affordable-housing advocate and member of the county Housing Commission.

In June, two County Council members, Ball and Courtney Watson, both Democrats, voiced their determination to do something. Watson promised that if no plan was introduced in September, "something will come from the council by October."

Now, Ball is leading an effort, in conjunction with other council members and administration officials, to produce a package of bills, he said.

"I've been working with my colleagues and the executive staff," Ball said.

Ulman said last week that his administration has "spent a lot of time over the last few months working on ideas. This is a very difficult issue. I think we need to build some consensus."

Ideas under discussion include allowing people with a wider range of incomes access to county programs and giving the county right of first refusal to acquire apartments set for conversion to condominiums, Ball said.

"The entire county is taking the housing crisis seriously," he said.

Watson said she shares the frustrations of the housing task force.

"It's going to involve a community discussion," Watson said. "We don't know if we have all the answers, but we want to put some answers out there."

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said that "we're all working on it." Since it is such a complicated issue, she said, she's been comfortable giving the new housing director, Stacy L. Spann, time "to take the department in another direction."

Councilman Greg Fox, the council's lone Republican, said he is in no rush on the issue.

"There's always all this talk about the need for affordable housing" accompanied by statistics on people who work in the county but can't afford to live there, he said. "The reality is, more people leave here to go to work than come here to go to work."

Council technology

The Howard County Council is adding high-tech features to its traditional way of doing the public's business.

First, a link to the council's Web page is now listed on the general county government Web page among options on the left side of the screen.

The public also can check online for rules and procedures for testifying at public hearings, Ball said at a council administrative meeting last week.

Soon, perhaps by the middle of next month, council administrator Sheila Tolliver said, people who want to testify at the council's monthly public hearings will be able to sign up as speakers from home by computer, or, as always, at the hearing itself.

In addition, Tolliver said the council is working on getting a digital sound system for the Banneker Room.

Finally, when council members sit as the Zoning Board, their written decisions will be posted on the Internet, Tolliver said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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