Divided council to vote tonight on loan to private company

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Howard County County Council members are divided about whether to endorse County Executive Charles I. Ecker's plan to lend $900,000 to a local company this fall, but plan to vote tonight on the idea.

The outcome is likely to be in doubt until the end of the council's

final legislative session of the summer, set for 8 p.m. at the County Office Building.

Two council members are leaning toward endorsing the proposal, two have reservations, and a fifth -- C. Vernon Gray of east Columbia -- is in Atlanta attending the annual convention of the National Association of Counties.

Mr. Ecker wants the county to borrow $900,000 from the state and lend the money to Marble Source Unlimited, an Annapolis Junction company specializing in the manufacture of natural stone products for walls and counter tops.

The county would use its taxing power -- "the full faith and credit of the county government" -- to guarantee the loan. Marble would repay the principal and interest at a rate one percentage point higher than whatever rate the county received from the state.

Even so, Marble would be getting a more favorable rate than it could commercially, says Richard W. Story, executive director of the county Economic Development Authority. Marble intends to use the loan to expand its $1 million-a-year business from 16 to about 60 employees.

Howard County is one of only five jurisdictions in the state that haven't used the pass-through loan program, Mr. Story said. In 25 years, the state has made 85 such loans, totaling $66.4 million, he said.

Councilman Darrel Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, said government should be friendly to business but not subsidize it. "It's tough," he said. "I am inclined to vote against [the proposal] on philosophical grounds."

Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican, also finds government subsidies abhorrent. "I don't like it, and I think the state should stop it," he said.

But since that's unlikely, he said he also worries what will happen to Howard if the county doesn't make loans. There is an implied threat that Marble might move elsewhere if the loan is not approved.

The city of Baltimore and Baltimore and Carroll counties have expressed interest in having Marble move to their jurisdiction, company President John J. Congedo said.

"The state money is just lying there, and some other county is going to use it if we don't," Mr. Feaga said. "And we do get 1 percent" of the loan for the county treasury.

Democratic Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung of west Columbia said she has no problem withlending money to local businesses, but she wants to make sure that this is the right program and company.

Republican Dennis Schrader of Kings Contrivance, who represents the district where Marble is, said he intends to vote for the proposal.

"Chuck [Ecker] and Dick [Story] are trying to test some new ideas," he said. "They are trying to get us up to speed and giving us this [proposal] as an early warning signal."

Mr. Congedo, the Marble owner, acknowledges that he is considering some "real viable things elsewhere" in case the county deal falls through, but is trying to be low-key about it. He said he doesn't want to use those other offers as bargaining chips.

In a separate matter, the council is expected to kill, for now, a plan to let residents spread out over several years the cost of connecting to the county water system. The proposal had been watched carefully by Marriottsville residents living near the contaminated Alpha Ridge landfill.

Mr. Feaga has asked that the administration bring the bill back in September, because it contained too many amendments.

For some council members, the proposal seemed intended for Marriottsville residents living near Alpha Ridge landfill. Cancer-causing contaminants have been found in test wells at the landfill, but not in nearby residential wells.

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