Funding Woes Hit Howard Development Industry

August 29, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

Howard County's recession-battered development industry shut down Friday, potentially stranding more than 20 projects because the independent agency that reviews erosion and sediment plans ran out of money to pay two workers.

But later in the day, the Howard County Soil Conservation officials said they have a plan to avert a crisis and would have one plan reviewer working on Monday.

"It's going to come about," said Bill Barnes, a county farmer who is chairman of the district's governing board of supervisors. He refused to say, however, how the worker would be paid.

The two plan reviewers had been told not to return to work until the funding problem is solved. The County Council is to vote Sept. 8 on a proposed fee schedule for builders that will provide money to pay them.

A shutdown could push some projects closer to the financial brink as Howard, like every local government, struggles to manage revenue declines sparked by the slowdown.

Builders are caught between the county government and the soil conservation district. They don't want to pay new fees, but they're more unhappy about work on their plans stopping.

"It's unbelievable," said developer Joseph Rutter, who added that he has several projects awaiting review by the soil conservation district and has never seen a shutdown in his more than three decades' experience.

"Depending on how long they're going to play this game, it could have a major impact," he said.

County Executive Ken Ulman cut funding for the two soil district jobs as an economy move, expecting county planners and engineers to take over the work. But soil district leaders who run the independent state agency rejected that, claiming it would compromise the reviews' integrity.

District manager Robert R. Ensor said he would begin charging builders fees to pay his employees, but he ran out of money before the council could approve them. He shocked county officials Thursday with a short letter informing them the shutdown would begin Friday.

Ulman responded immediately, offering to lend Ensor a qualified county engineer to do their work at no cost, but late Friday county officials said Ensor had rejected the offer.

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