Ulman: 'zero intention' to raise Howard property tax

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman told a group of residents at his fourth annual town hall meeting Monday night that he has "absolutely zero intention of raising property taxes in the next four years if I'm re-elected."

The statement came as residents quizzed the executive at Hammond High School in Columbia on a range of subjects, including land use and pensions, in an annual public meeting where residents are invited to question him.

Ulman, a Democrat seeking a second term against Republican Trent Kittleman, made the comment in answer to a question from Julian A. Levy Jr., 61, of Wilde Lake, who said he's seen friends retire from county government service and move away, partly because of their property tax burdens.

"Will you commit to not raising the property tax rate?" Levy asked at the meeting. Ulman first noted that he did not propose a property tax increase during his first term in office, and followed that with his statement, which was not the ironclad commitment Levy wanted to hear. The county can't raise the local income tax rate because it is already at the state's legal limit.

Levy said later he did not take Ulman's comment on taxes as an absolute declaration, and remained skeptical.

"The politician's pledge," he said. "What's the word of any politician worth?"

County Republican Party Chairwoman Joan Becker, who also attended the meeting, said, "It will be interesting to see if he sticks to it" if he wins. A Republican initiative — which would have amended the county charter to require four County Council votes for any general tax increase instead of three — failed Monday to collect even half the required 10,000 signatures to place the issue on the November ballot.

Ulman also used another Levy question about the downtown Columbia redevelopment plan to say he hopes that creating a more urban, lively environment in Town Center might entice retirees to stay in the county and move to residences within walking distance of entertainment, shopping and other services.

In an earlier exchange on public pension costs with Ed Priola, a Republican candidate for House of Delegates, Ulman said that the prospect of teacher pension costs being shifted from state to local governments is the "biggest issue" facing the county next year.

"It would be very hard on every government to undertake," the executive told Priola. Democrats frequently point out that the county has balanced its budget through this recession without general tax increases and without dipping into its emergency reserves or jeopardizing its treasured AAA bond rating.

Still, Levy said after the 90-minute meeting that he'd like to see more cost-cutting to programs like Healthy Howard, Ulman's signature health access program that has cost the county $500,000 per year.

"I would like to see them look much harder at reducing expenses," the self-employed environmental consultant said.

Kittleman did not attend the meeting but said Tuesday that she "can't really argue" with Ulman's comment, calling it a "reasonable, responsible answer."

"I would love to lower taxes," she said, "but the problem is there is very little leeway." She added, however, that "I hope Ken means it," especially since he voted as a County Council member to increase the income tax rate in 2003.

Ulman's annual town hall meeting drew a smaller crowd than in years past, with 16 speakers.

The largest group was from far western Howard, concerned about fighting off proposals for used-car lots, residential windmills, cell phone towers, wineries and large social events. But the tone was friendly and several people praised Ulman's efforts to address their complaints.

"I'm very impressed," a "grateful" Carl Oehrig, of western Howard told Ulman at the meeting's end. The executive agreed with him and Becker, who came to urge that county schools become sites for more cell towers instead of locating them on farms in otherwise residential areas.

"We need to pull together a little group and figure out a way to get ahead of this," he said. School board Chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles, who also attended the session along with a large group of county department heads, told the group that people who live near county schools don't want the towers near them any more than those Becker represents near Burntwoods Road. Howard High School is the only school that has a cell tower.

Walter Carson, president of a group called Concerned Citizens of Western Howard, said his members want to protect what they consider "a bit of heaven on earth" by keeping out things either allowed or proposed in county zoning law, like large social gatherings, windmills and cell towers.

Much of their concern is the result of attempts to help people who own farms in agricultural preservation find ancillary ways to boost their incomes and keep the land pristine, but people living in the west often fear weekend weddings or parties allowed on some farms. They urged review of all the issues during the coming General Plan review, which creates a guide for the next decade of county growth.

"The west does not need a skyline dotted with cell and wind towers or crowds at wineries," Carson said. Legislation providing for wineries that could host social events for up to 500 people in county zoning law was tabled last month by the County Council while Ulman works on amendments to limit crowds, and Brenda Stewart, another west county resident, thanked him for that.

Meanwhile Sandra Lutes asked for elimination of a zoning provision that allows "limited outdoor social assemblies" on some preserved farms like the one on Jennings Chapel Road near her.

Mabe Pouncy had a more traditional complaint — that Morgan Station Road where he lives near Lisbon is badly in need of repaving.

He complained of paying "$6,200 a year in property taxes and [looking] at a road that looks like a jigsaw puzzle." Ulman asked county Public Works Director James N. Irvin, who attended the meeting, to speak to Pouncy. Road repaving funds have been severely cut both at the county and state level because of the recession.

Stuart Kohn of North Laurel, a crusader against long waits in Howard County General Hospital's emergency room, came to thank Ulman for paying attention to the problem, which is now improved, he said. He urged again that access to medical facilities be considered as part of the county's system of growth control laws.

Ulman said response times for county firefighters responding to medical emergencies are down on average by one minute 30 seconds, and he said new fire stations planned for Glenwood, Savage and Jessup will help more.

"We know if we do what we can do, we can save lives," he said.