Budget aims to ease growth; Wastewater plant, schools may receive nearly half of funds; $200 million plan; Robey includes proposal for public golf course


At $200 million, Howard County Executive James N. Robey's second capital budget proposal is twice as big as last year's and stuffed with projects to keep up with the population, the fastest growing in the Baltimore area.

Despite the huge increase, no dramatic new projects are included. Nearly half the spending would go for schools and a major upgrade of the county's wastewater treatment plant in Savage. Robey provided all but $4 million of the school board's request -- $16 million more than last year -- and included money for all classroom-related requests.

Robey's goal, he said, "is the balance of opposing priorities -- managing our debt burden and maintaining the quality of our infrastructure."

The lack of drama, said county budget director Raymond S. Wacks, is good. "That's the way it should be. This is good planning. You shouldn't have surprises."

Robey's proposal also includes money to renovate Howard Community College's gym and plan for a new classroom building.

"We're very satisfied," Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent of schools for operations and finance, said about getting $49 million for his projects.

The money Robey cut was intended for buying land for school sites and renovations at the former Faulkner Ridge Elementary School in Columbia, used for teacher training.

County Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a West Columbia Democrat, said the latter was opposed by people in the neighborhood anyway. "It's not a big deal," she said.

Other major items are $21 million toward building Reservoir High School in Fulton, $15 million for agricultural preservation and $11.4 million to continue work on upgrading the county's emergency radio system. Other school projects include additions to Glenelg and Centennial high schools and planning money for a new northeast elementary and a new western middle school.

The booming economy provided $27 million in surplus cash, which will help keep the county's debt service below $50 million a year.

The county would sell bonds to raise another $29 million. Robey and Wacks are counting on another $20 million in state school construction money. The water and sewer projects are paid for by bonds supported by annual utility taxes.

"We have a lot of infrastructure needs, mostly because of school crowding" and class-size reductions, said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican. "If we're going to commit to that program, we need to build the infrastructure."

Robey's proposal dropped a few contentious minor items, such as building a footbridge in Kings Contrivance and widening Whiskey Bottom Road. It includes $1.4 million for sidewalk construction.

The Democratic executive is trying to walk a political tightrope on what is perhaps the budget's most difficult issue -- whether to build a $9 million public county golf course in West Friendship.

He included money in the budget for the publicly owned course -- the county's second -- but said he might not spend it if private course owners will agree to offer discounts for lower-income patrons.

"If private enterprise can and will provide lower-cost golf to our residents, especially our junior and senior players, then I will cancel the project," Robey said.

The proposed western Howard golf course has been under fire from private course owners there and from Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, who complain that it will unfairly compete with private enterprise while enjoying the tax benefits of being publicly owned.

"It sounds good to us," said Thomas C. Beach, managing partner of Willow Springs Golf Course, near the county's West Friendship property. He said he recently extended hours to welcome older players and children with lower rates.

Kittleman, too, praised Robey. "I think it's great to work with people." But he will oppose building a new course in his district "no matter what," he said.

Donald J. Dunn, chairman of the county's Golf Advisory Committee and a prime advocate for a new course, said: "I feel very frustrated. We've got a lot of organizations lined up pushing for that golf course."

With the county's senior population due to rise dramatically in the next several decades, Dunn said, the county needs more, not fewer, recreational opportunities.

Other council members have doubts about the golf course project, too.

"I am highly skeptical about the project," said Lorsung, who explained that she thought the Timbers at Troy course, the county's first, was supposed to provide low-cost golfing. Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he has environmental worries about building a course.

The County Council will hold a public hearing on the capital budget at 7: 30 p.m. April 18 in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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