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Prevailing-wage hearing stirs more from council than public; Members argue effect of governor's proposal


Only two taxpayers showed up to speak at last night's Howard County Council hearing on a resolution opposing Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to pay prevailing wages on school construction projects.

The citizens almost didn't get a chance to speak because two council members -- veteran Democrat C. Vernon Gray of Columbia and west county freshman Republican Allan H. Kittleman -- got into an argument over the pay issue.

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung of Columbia had to intercede and "remind [Gray and Kittleman] that this is a public hearing for the public."

Glendening has proposed paying prevailing wages -- often at the higher union scale -- on projects that are 50 percent state-financed. The current standard is 75 percent state-financed. The governor's proposal fulfills a campaign pledge he made in 1998 to labor unions that supported his re-election.

Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City introduced the resolution opposing Glendening's proposal because, they said, it would sharply increase school construction costs.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, opposes the resolution.

Democrats Gray, Lorsung and Guy J. Guzzone, of North Laurel-Savage, also oppose the resolution, meaning it would fail in the five-member council. A resolution is usually nonbinding and expresses the opinion of a legislative body.

Complicating the issue are statements by county and state education officials that the change would barely affect Howard County, if at all, because Howard pays roughly 75 percent of school construction costs, or fronts county money, recouping it from the state later.

Two citizens appeared at the hearing.

"You'll either have to build fewer schools or increase the [county's] debt," warned Paul L. Miller of Ellicott City.

"I do not see how this will benefit education," said Greg Fox of Columbia, a Republican county council candidate in 1998.

"This is simply Governor Glendening's attempt to pay back unions for supporting him," Kittleman said. "Political paybacks make poor public policy."

"The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree," Gray shot back, referring to Kittleman's father, state Del. Robert H. Kittleman, the GOP leader in the House of Delegates who is often sharply critical of Glendening.

"I take that as a compliment," Kittleman said.

The Democrats say construction workers should be paid a fair wage, and that Howard's projects won't be affected much by the change.

Republicans say construction workers already are paid well enough and, if Democrats want to pay higher wages, they can pass a county law mandating prevailing wages for all school projects.

Last night, there was no disagreement on a proposed measure to provide a 50 percent tax rebate over five years to owners of businesses in historic buildings who install sprinkler systems.

Kittleman, Gray and Merdon sponsored the bill, which was introduced after the Nov. 9 fire that destroyed five businesses and four apartments on Main Street in Ellicott City. None of those buildings had sprinkler systems.

"We do have our differences, and we do many times agree," Kittleman said.

The council is set to vote March 6 on the prevailing-wage and sprinkler bills and a measure to amend the county's adequate public facilities ordinance.

That measure had a January public hearing.

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