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Howard delegation prepares for 2015 session with public hearing

Delegate Frank Turner speaks during the Howard County Chamber of Commerce 2014 Legislative Breakfast at the Double Tree by Hilton in Columbia on Nov. 18, 2014.
Delegate Frank Turner speaks during the Howard County Chamber of Commerce 2014 Legislative Breakfast at the Double Tree by Hilton in Columbia on Nov. 18, 2014. (Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Howard County's delegation to the General Assembly bid farewell to departing members and welcomed new ones at its public hearing in Ellicott City Thursday night, as legislators looked forward to the start of a new session in January.

Howard's delegation is losing four of its lawmakers this year: state Sen. Jim Robey, a Democrat from District 13, and delegates Jimmy Malone, Steve DeBoy and Liz Bobo, all three Democrats from District 12, are retiring once their term ends in a few weeks.

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DeBoy called his time as a delegate "one of the highlights of my professional life.

"The friendships and the people that you work with are the things that you take away from this job," he said. "You don't always agree, but I think we all respected one another and the work product that we were trying to turn around."

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Robey called the job "challenging... because I try to make everyone happy.

"We certainly disagreed, and that's healthy," he said of his work with the other delegation members. "It leads to a better product."

Bobo and Malone did not attend the hearing, which was held to gather public comment on local bills that will be introduced in the upcoming session.

This year, the delegation has 10 pre-filed local bills. Half request state money to fund capital projects in the county, two would authorize special permitted events, two deal with county business and the last would lower the maximum rate for the county's income tax.

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Among the requests was one from a local group hoping to renovate the Harriet Tubman Center, the county's junior and senior high school for African Americans before desegregation, into a museum.

Sherman Howell, a Harriet Tubman Foundation board member and president of African Americans in Howard County, said the project was "critically needed... not only to tell the story of African Americans in Howard County" but as a place to host programs, as well.

Currently, the building is used as a building services support center for the school system. School board chair Janet Siddiqui testified against the proposal, because she said the building still fills an important need.

"The Board of Education agrees with the intent of those proposing the Harriet Tubman project bond bill but is obliged to oppose until some alternative location is identified," Siddiqui said.

Other capital requests include $250,000 for a renovation and expansion of the environmental education center at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock; $35,000 to repair the roof of the Howard County Historical Society building in historic Ellicott City; $300,000 to renovate the historic Clover Hill farm house in Elkridge's Rockburn Branch Park; and $500,000 to help the Community Action Council, Howard's largest hunger relief operation, to secure a larger, permanent home.

CAC President Bita Dayhoff testified that the organization had distributed 520,000 pounds of food to county residents in fiscal year 2014, and anticipated that number would grow.

Senator-elect Guy Guzzone, the Democrat sponsoring the CAC bill, said he had visited the food bank on Thursday and what he saw "shocked" him.

"It was so packed, you couldn't walk in the facility," he said. "It just reinforced for me how important this is." A similar bill last year was unsuccessful.

Also up for another try was a bill from Del. Warren Miller, a Republican, that would authorize charity casino fundraising events for volunteer fire departments and veterans' organizations.

Miller also sponsored a bill that would help a Turf Valley liquor store hold specialty wine tastings for customers as well as a bill to lower the county's maximum income tax rate, though the delegate said he was still working out what the new maximum would be and how a lower rate would impact the county's budget. He said he'd have both answers before the start of session.

"This is my attempt to lower the income tax for Howard County citizens," he told the delegation. "A lot of my constituents are seeking relief."

The 2015 session begins Jan. 14.

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