Ehrlich budget has millions for projects in Howard County

Times may be tight, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s first capital budget includes nearly $10 million for a new Howard Community College performing arts building and millions more for development of two Howard County parks and three local school projects.

"We were hoping. We really have a major shortage," said a grateful college vice president, Lynn Coleman, who said dance students now worry about hitting their heads on the ceiling of a makeshift practice area. Enrollment in drama and film arts courses has increased more than 100 percent in eight years, and a new, two-story, 78,000- square-foot building would enable students to use first-rate facilities instead of inadequate, converted spaces.

Gary Arthur, the county's director of recreation and parks, was happy, too, about getting $1.7 million in state Program Open Space money Ehrlich provided to help pay for development of Western Regional Park in Glenwood and Meadowbrook Community Park along U.S. 29, near Route 100.

The state money will become available July 1, if the General Assembly approves.

Villages lobby for boost in salaries of their staff

Representatives from nearly all of Columbia's 10 villages are lobbying the Columbia Association's board of directors to allocate more money for village staff salaries, to make them comparable to the association's employee pay.

The representatives are asking for larger financial grants so the villages can match a 3.6 percent pay raise proposed for association staff members.

Columbia Association's monetary allocation for staff salaries has risen steadily in recent years. For fiscal year 2004, which begins in May, the association is considering a budget that would spend $14.2 million - about a 29 percent increase from 1999 - on salaries and wages of almost 500 full-time-equivalent employees.

Federal funds are needed to open county drug court

Howard County officials are aiming to open the county's first-ever drug court in the District Court building by fall - as long as hoped-for federal funding comes through.

District Court, the home to minor criminal, traffic and civil cases, is a natural starting point for the county's efforts, said Howard District Judge Louis A. Becker III, a co-chair of the planning team that has been studying the idea.

Not only does the court traditionally serve as a first stop for criminal cases as they make their way through the system, it also has more room and resources than the space-strapped Circuit Court building up the street, he said.

Oakland Mills center to get Food Lion store

A Food Lion grocery store is coming to the Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia, filling a void left by a Metro Food Market store that closed nearly two years ago.

The deal was announced Tuesday night at a meeting of the Oakland Mills Village Board to a crowd of about 35 residents who cheered the news.

One local analyst said the lease was a coup for Kimco Realty Corp., which owns the village center, but he is not sure any grocer can operate in the center where two other grocers, Metro and Giant Food, have failed.

Manslaughter plea entered in 1991 shooting case

A Virginia man accused of fatally shooting his cousin in a Jessup hotel room in 1991 pleaded guilty to a single count of manslaughter Wednesday - more than six years after his original murder conviction was overturned by appellate judges who said his right to a fair trial was compromised by a prosecutor's "zeal."

Adel George Hagez, 54, who lives in the Richmond area, entered the plea as part of a deal with prosecutors, who agreed to reduce the charge against him from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter.

"It was a life decision to put this behind him and move forward with the hope that any period of incarceration will be brief," Hagez's lawyer, Joseph Murtha, said after Wednesday's hearing. Hagez's case was delayed for several years while one of his former lawyers unsuccessfully argued that a retrial would violate his constitutional protection against being tried for the same crime twice.

River Hill playground finally finds a home

A tot lot long planned for River Hill that has been without a specific site for years will finally be built near the village center.

After scouting out three locations, the Columbia Association and River Hill village have agreed on one that the Howard County Planning Board deemed suitable - along a path directly behind one of the four condominium buildings of Fieldstone at River Hill that are under construction.

The playground could be built by summer.

School workers ask board to increase their pay

With Howard County's political leaders questioning how to fund a proposed $440.4 million school budget for fiscal year 2004 - a 12.7 percent increase over 2003 - more than 50 teachers, schools employees and parents turned up at a budget hearing Thursday night to argue that finding more money for school salaries is vitally important.

The teachers and their supporters packed the room to tell school board members meeting at the Board of Education building in Ellicott City that the system's power was in its people.

"The most important resource of the school system is its human resources," said Donna Schulze, an instructional assistant.

Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, used a visual aid during his presentation - the pay stub of a first-year instructional assistant. The woman earned a net take-home pay of a little more than $200 a week. Staub said reclassifying her job one level higher would increase her pay by about $11.75 a week.

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