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Howard County Council to discuss Columbia Cultural Center, new elementary school in October

The Howard County Council has introduced legislation for the month of October that includes moving the funding for the new Columbia Cultural Center out of contingency, mandating fiscal analysis on bills introduced by the county executive and laying the groundwork for a future school in Turf Valley.

The County Council earlier this month passed legislation to create a Racial Equity Task Force, as introduced by council members Opel Jones and Christiana Mercer Rigby. The task force will aim to study racial inequities and disparities within the county, creating subcommittees to discuss possible changes in various areas including education, government, health, housing and safety. The task force, to be comprised of more than 60 community leaders, experts, activists and students, is expected to first meet next month, according to a council news release.

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The council also passed a bill, introduced by Vice Chair Liz Walsh, to end the county’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, stopping the Howard County Department of Corrections from accepting individuals detained by federal immigration law enforcement agencies. County Executive Calvin Ball, however, vetoed that legislation two days later.

Here’s what you need to know about what the County Council is discussing in October:

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Cultural center’s fate could be decided

In April, Ball proposed a more than $250 million capital budget for fiscal 2021, including funding the new cultural arts center, a $63 million project with 15-year-old roots.

During the County Council budget talks in the spring, the cultural center was a frequently discussed budget item, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning and there was looming uncertainty in what financial resources would be needed. The proposal, which would build a new center at the current site of Toby’s Dinner Theatre at intersection of Symphony Woods Road and South Entrance Road, just east of Merriweather Post Pavilion, was the largest capital project for fiscal 2021.

Council Chair Deb Jung and council member David Yungmann, who had originally expressed concerns about the project’s history of evolution and proposed waiting to fund the cultural center, introduced an amendment at the last minute to put the funding in contingency.

That funding has now been moved back to the council for a vote after Ball introduced legislation earlier this month.

The urgency of funding the project in fiscal 2021 revolves around the county receiving approval for federal low-income housing tax credits. The Howard County Housing Commission’s tax credits require the building be open and functional by the end of 2024, according to Carl DeLorenzo, director of policy and programs for Howard County. With a three-year construction time and a year needed for planning, he said, construction would need to start by spring 2021 to be completed in time.

Yungmann said the project is closer now to one that he could support. Yungmann and Jung have been meeting with DeLorenzo since the budget process concluded in late May.

“I think it is overly optimistic that this gets three votes on Nov. 2 [at the council’s next legislative session],” Yungmann said. “I support the concept of a cultural center; it’s just who pays for it and who takes the risk.”

Jung said the lingering questions she had in May that led her to voting to put the funding into contingency are being addressed, but she also agreed with Yungmann: “I don’t know if everything will be answered by Nov. 2.”

Council proposes reducing work for auditor

Jung, with co-sponsors Yungmann and Walsh, has introduced legislation to require the county executive to submit a fiscal analysis with each bill that the county executive requests to be introduced by the County Council.

Right now that responsibility falls to Craig Glendenning, the county auditor who works for the County Council. Glendenning currently completes fiscal analysis for any bill introduced by the five council members or by the county executive.

“The county executive has immediate and direct access to the information needed to conduct such an analysis and [this legislation] allows the council’s auditor to provide the County Council with more robust and timely analysis of the county executive’s bills,” Jung said.

Yungmann said the bill would relieve the county auditor of some responsibility and hand it over to the county executive’s finance department. He also said the legislation would have a nominal impact, estimating 10 to 12 bills introduced by the county executive need fiscal analysis each year.

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“The county executive sends down their bills with no fiscal analysis, then the auditor has to look at the bill, determine which departments he has to make inquiries of to obtain the fiscal information that the council’s auditor needs in order to provide the council with fiscal analysis,” Jung said. “It can take weeks to obtain that information, which means the council does not have as much time as it would like to digest that information and ensure that we are as well-informed as we need to be before passing the legislation.”

Walsh also added that it’s important for the public to have access to those fiscal impact statements on introduced legislation.

While Yungmann originally proposed the idea over the summer as a county charter amendment, to eventually be put to voters through referendum questions, Yoland Sonnier, chair of the county’s Charter Review Commission, suggested the issue would be more appropriately addressed through legislation from the County Council.

New elementary school in Ellicott City

Ball has introduced legislation for the County Council to approve the financing of acquiring land for the construction of a new elementary school in the Turf Valley neighborhood of Ellicott City.

The legislation lays the groundwork for a payment plan for the county’s 45th elementary school to help relieve overcrowding at the elementary level. It says, in part, the price for the land acquisition cannot exceed $6 million.

Walsh also introduced legislation related to the Turf Valley school construction. Her legislation would amend the Howard County Code to remove the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance’s exemption for conditionally exempt residential subdivision plans.

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Removing this exemption from the ordinance — which places limits on residential construction based on the capacity of public schools and roads — would address the potential for overcrowding caused by continuing development in the Turf Valley neighborhood, Walsh said. Under the current ordinance, the Turf Valley area is exempted from schools capacity testing.

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“[My] legislation would rid the county code of exemptions one certain developer has used to build into overcrowded schools without delay for decades,” Walsh said.

Walsh said Turf Valley is exempted from a rule other developers have to follow; by addressing that, she said, further building in the area wouldn’t happen until school capacity exists.

“You have to wait your turn if you’re pushing kids into overcrowded schools,” Walsh said.

In 2016, the Howard County Public School System asked the county to assess the viability of purchasing property in Turf Valley. In 2017, the county announced its intent to purchase property in the neighborhood.

“The timing on the land purchase is such that we wouldn’t be in the position to design or build an elementary school for seven or eight years,” Walsh said.

The County Council is scheduled to vote on the introduced legislation Nov. 2.

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