The last major player finally weighed in yesterday when the Howard County PTA Council voted to embrace County Executive James N. Robey's controversial transfer tax increase, but the endorsement might be too late to mobilize enough parental forces to save the bill.
Robey said he has angered members of the Howard County delegation, which will vote on the proposal Feb. 12, by pressuring them to take an early stand on the tax designed to offer the school system $215 million worth of borrowing power for construction over the next seven years.
"I'm dead in the water in Annapolis," Robey said. "Obviously it's critical to have the support of the PTA Council."
But there are just two days left before the delegation holds a public hearing on the bill Thursday, which does not leave much time to marshal troops and change the delegation's tenor.
Many expect strong opposition to appear at the hearing, particularly from the Howard County Association of Realtors, which is vehemently opposed to the tax and is taking out ads in local newspapers, urging the community to fight the proposal.
The county school board, Housing and Development Board and Housing Commission have offered their support, but the PTA Council, which has the backing of more than 27,000 members, could make or break the proposal. With one nay and one abstention, the more than 40 PTA representatives in the room voted to show their collective espousal.
PTA Council President Deborah Wessner urged members to show up at the legislative hearing, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City and reminded those present what a collective vote means.
"As individuals, any of you may testify against this bill," Wessner said, "but as PTAs because we have [chosen to endorse it], you must stay with support of this bill."
The bill would raise the property transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent, with the difference going entirely to school construction.
It would raise about $10 million each year, which could be used to borrow about $215 million. That money would be paid off like a mortgage over 20 years, said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director.
Brooke Schume, a representative from Hollifield Station Elementary School, told Robey that he thought the proposal was not nearly enough to meet the county's growing needs.
"I'm disappointed with the program to be honest with you," Schume said, challenging Robey to "take the political heat" necessary to force the building of schools.
"The transfer tax is a good start," Schume said, "but it's going to take a lot more than that."
Howard County's student population grows by about 1,000 children each year, and the county needs more new schools and school renovations to accommodate the increase. The tax would largely hit those who create the need for the new structures, Robey said.
The proposed tax equals that in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and is the highest in the state, but it is the best solution Robey and his staff said they could come up with.
"If someone else has got another idea," Robey said, "I'm happy to hear it."