County leaders outline planned changes as result of Ulman's budget

Political Notebook

April 27, 2008|By Larry Carson

It's often said that local government is where the rubber meets the road -- where public services most affect individual residents. That was clear last week as a string of Howard County department heads told the County Council how the proposed $1.4 billion Ulman administration budget would change services they provide.

Although county schools, as usual, get the lion's share of $42 million in proposed locally funded spending (89 percent), several department heads described small, but important changes proposed for their areas.

Police Chief William J. McMahon said that 10 of the 22 new police officers in the budget would be for patrolling the county streets, ending a long period of "stagnation" in the size of the patrol force.

In addition, the hirings would allow five officers to form what the chief termed "a real repeat-offender program" to track people who are habitually found to violate the law.

One new position would be for domestic violence cases and another officer would work exclusively on child abuse cases. Dealing with growing concern about gang activity in the county would be the duty of another officer.

In addition, two detectives would be assigned to handle incidents that don't require more sophisticated criminal investigations, such as indecent exposures, thefts, hate-bias incidents and frauds.

Finally, the budget would allow the hiring of two civilian employees to help with public information, and research and planning, freeing two sworn officers.

Changes in many county departments are routine, but some, though small, are not.

In Marsha McLaughlin's planning and zoning budget, there is $50,000 for one consultant on green building certification and $35,000 for a consultant to help draw up new uses to present to potential developers for the old Gateway school building on Route 108 in Clarksville. The building would be sold in Ulman's plan.

Public works would get a person to help grow commercial and government recycling, and one more worker to handle the increasingly popular drop-off facilities at the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill.

Susan Rosenbaum's citizen services would get $40,000 more to help people avoid utility shutoffs, prevent eviction, or to pay a first month's rent.

Peter L. Beilenson's health department would get two employees to help enroll county children in federally funded health insurance plans.

The finance department would get three people to collect real estate recordation taxes now collected by the circuit court clerk's office. The hirings would cost $248,000, finance director Sharon Greisz testified, but by collecting the taxes directly, the county would not have to pay administrative fees to the courts and would collect $805,000 more revenue.

`Fluid' situation

County Council Chairman Courtney Watson called the situation among council members "fluid" when it comes to a decision on the proposed county purchase of 15,000 square feet of office space in a condominium building proposed for the Oakland Mills Village Center.

But a council discussion last week left the impression that Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, could hold the deciding third vote. Two members, Councilman Greg Fox and Watson, seem to be leaning against the purchase, while Councilman Calvin Ball and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa support it.

County Executive Ken Ulman wants the building to help revitalize the village center. The county would be a crucial lead tenant needed to allow the developer to get construction financing for the speculative building.

Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, and Fox, a Fulton Republican, were critical of the project as council members reviewed now-familiar arguments for and against spending $4 million to buy one floor of the proposed four-story Meridian Square building. An additional $1.37 million would outfit and furnish the space for 63 county workers from housing and children's services programs.

Watson said she has seen no data to show that the Meridian Square building alone would revitalize the village center. Fox said the need for parking would overwhelm existing lots.

Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who represents Oakland Mills, said the mixed-use building is part of the solution for Oakland Mills, not the whole package. The building would eliminate a long-vacant lot and bring more people to the center, he said.

"My question is, is this the best way to spend our money?" Watson said. "I know we do not need Meridian Square for space."

Aaron Greenfield, Ulman's chief of staff, said: "We're of the belief we need that floor. We believe we have that need and it's a good investment."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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