Much concern, but no plan for roads, schools

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

July 13, 2008|By LARRY CARSON

Though County Council chairman Courtney Watson's push for a citizens committee to discuss ways to provide more schools and public infrastructure has drawn a tepid response from elected officials wary of tax increases, she maintains it is a vexing problem that must be addressed.

"We have to come up with some consensus or we're going to really affect development options on U.S. 1," the Ellicott City Democrat said.

School enrollment projections show all the elementary schools along the corridor could be overcrowded at some point in the next decade, which would trigger development delays. It is a bedeviling political problem as the 2010 statewide elections draw closer and the national economy continues to drag.

The council's treatment of County Executive Ken Ulman's bill to boost redevelopment along the U.S. 1 corridor by advancing some housing allocations from future years made Watson's argument crystal clear.

Responding to residents worried about more new homes and condos outpacing the county's ability to provide increasingly expensive classrooms, road improvements and amenities, the council placed so many restrictions on the bill that it's not clear if the measure will have much impact.

But Watson said she's not necessarily aiming at higher taxes.

"I'm not going to support a tax increase until all other options have been pursued," she said.

There are other ideas, such as the government sharing land with private developers; smaller, multiuse public buildings; diverting existing revenue from areas where it may not be needed; or borrowing more via bond sales.

In Frederick County, developers can pay to build additions onto schools to enable their residential projects to move forward, Watson noted.

Howard school officials have been pushing for help paying fast-rising construction costs for years, but stopped after state tax increases last year and growing economic woes made the political atmosphere uninviting.

Still, school superintendent Sydney L. Cousin and school board vice chair Ellen Flynn Giles said they welcome Watson's suggestion for another look.

"I think we do need to do something," Giles said, including a focus on infrastructure funding that encompasses more than just schools.

Said Cousin: "I think the discussion is certainly worthwhile."

The issue came up five years ago, when then-County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, proposed raising the real estate transfer tax to raise more than $200 million for school construction. He was rebuffed by the county's General Assembly delegation, which later approved a more limited tax on new homes instead.

Ulman has suggested convening the county's Spending Affordability Committee earlier - perhaps in October instead of December - and asking members to examine the issue.

"I thought that made sense to me," Ulman said. "I didn't want to re-create the wheel."

Ulman has often warned in speeches that while Howard now boasts a top-rated school system and other community amenities, those prized systems can decline over time without vigilant upkeep.

Some council members say they are willing to consider Watson's ideas.

"It's important to look for ways to address our future needs," said Calvin Ball, Democrat who represents East Columbia.

And Fulton Republican Greg Fox agreed there are ways to do things without raising taxes.

But Mary Kay Sigaty suggested it might be an exercise in futility and referred to the transfer tax debate.

"I think we did that five years ago," the west Columbia Democrat said about creating a new discussion forum. "I don't think anything has changed in terms of where we get money."

Human error

As county homeowners who pay their own property taxes puzzle over why the return address on their county bills doesn't show through the transparent window in the envelope provided, they might consider actually reading the slim brochure on their county taxes.

County finance director Sharon Greisz said an error by the printer that her staff failed to catch led to the mismatched return address. But the bar code at the bottom of the envelope is enough to direct the precious tax revenue into county coffers anyway.

"It was basic human error," Greisz said.

The mistake affects about 22,000 homeowners who personally pay their taxes. The rest of the 94,000 bills mailed are paid by mortgage companies and commercial property owners, who weren't affected, she said.

The slim three-panel brochure included with this year's property tax bills provides taxpayers with a concise summary of the county's fiscal posture and describes programs to help those who need it.

The brochure points out, for example, that although the county property tax rate of $1.014 per $100 of assessed value hasn't changed since last year, $21.7 million more revenue will be produced because of rising assessments. To keep revenues the same as last year, the property tax rate would have had to drop to $.952 cents per $100 of value.

The brochure also notes that the average county taxpayer - a family of four with the median income of $94,260 and a house worth $300,000 - would pay $6,202 in income, property and fire taxes to the county. That doesn't count state property taxes, water and sewer charges, or the trash/recycling fee.

The county offers help for lower-income or older homeowners, both with property taxes and with the trash fee, plus tax credits for installation of solar or geothermal energy systems.

The brochure also notes the trash/recycling fee is $225 for most residents, but $210 for rural residents who don't receive yard waste recycling service. It does not mention that the fee increased from $175 last year, when it only covered trash disposal costs.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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