Bill aimed at easing crowding on hold

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At the encouragement of the Harkins administration, Councilman Dion F. Guthrie has agreed to hold up -- at least temporarily -- on the introduction of a controversial bill designed to ease crowding in Harford County schools.

Guthrie, a Democrat who represents the southern part of the county, said he was approached by the administration several days before he was set to file a bill that would change the county's Adequate Public Facilities laws so that they would halt housing construction in any area where enrollment in public schools exceeds 100 percent of the school's designed capacity.

The current law halts construction when a school's capacity tops 120 percent.

"They asked me to withdraw the bill until a study was done on its impact," Guthrie said.

Technically, he declined the administration's request.

"I didn't withdraw the bill," he said of his action at the council meeting Tuesday night. "I picked my words carefully. I said I was not submitting it at this time."

The difference, he explained, "is that I can submit the bill anytime if ... the process is not moving along or it's going down the wrong road."

During the meeting council members voted unanimously in favor of a resolution from Council President Robert S. Wagner, a Republican, to form a task force to review and update the adequate public facilities laws and to report back to the council by Sept. 30.

Wagner expressed concern about the economic impact on the county of a change in the law that would halt housing development in one of the state's fastest-growing counties.

It's a concern shared by the county administration.

"The red lights went off all over the place when the administration learned of the proposal, said James C. Richardson, director of human resources.

"[County Executive James M. Harkins] pulled the cabinet together into a working group," said Richardson. "We put our heads together to do some what-if scenarios" to try to determine how the proposed legislation might impact county revenue. We rely on revenue for everything we do."

He said the group met "off and on for about a week," to collect data and to look at numbers on the financial impact of such a move.

"There were questions like, 'What happens if we don't have this number of houses?'" Richardson said. "What's the impact? Is there a loss of revenue and will this affect the office on aging, transportation and school construction."

He continued: "We didn't get to the point of having hard numbers, but we got to the point that we knew the bill would have a significant impact on the county."

Guthrie was not critical of the action of his colleagues in seeking a task force study. "It's a good resolution," he said. "If we jump too fast, it would look like we have not done our homework."

He said the task force would be looking at more than the impact of a 100 percent school capacity on the law. "We know what 120 percent is like and it's not good. But what happens if you reduce it to 115 percent, or 110 percent or 105 percent?"

"This is a big issue for me," Guthrie said of the overpopulation in schools. "I was elected on this issue," he said.

Guthrie said that during the past four years more than 7,000 new houses have been built in the county but not one new school or addition to a school. He said another 1,900 houses are in the pipeline.

In submitting his resolution for a task force study, Wagner said there was a need to look at all the things that could be affected by a drop in the capacity limit from 120 percent to a lower percentage.

He said the study would give council members the information they need to determine the legislation's impact on the economy.

As outlined in Wagner's resolution, the task force is to be composed of nine members:

Two County Council members.

The superintendent of schools or the superintendent's designee.

A representative of the Home Builders Association.

A representative of the County Department of Planning and Zoning.

A representative of the Harford County Council of PTAs Inc.

A representative of Friends of Harford Inc.

A member selected by the county executive.

A member appointed by the county Board of Education.

The council also approved an amendment to Wagner's resolution from Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican who represents the Bel Air area, seeking a professional analysis of any change in the law.

His amendment would have the council hire an independent consultant to provide an analysis of the likely impact on the county budget, county businesses and the county economy of a change in the adequate public facilities laws as they apply to schools.

The council approved Cassilly's amendment after adding a clause saying "provided funds are available."

"It is not that I don't have faith in the task force," Cassilly said. "But I would like a financial expert to look at the numbers and offer some advice on the real impact of this bill on revenue, the county tax base, the county budget, the local economy and the fiscal picture of the county in general."

He added: "We are trying to balance three very important issues: The quality of education, the local economy and the fiscal soundness of county government."

The home building industry is strongly opposed to Guthrie's proposal.

Susan Stroud Davies, director of government relations for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said a change in the law would halt housing construction in 90 percent of the county.

She said this would have a detrimental impact on plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other workers involved in housing construction.

Guthrie called such claims of devastation ridiculous.

Donald R. Morrison, a spokesman for Harford County public schools, said there are 11 schools where enrollment exceeds 100 percent of the school building's designed capacity.

School Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas told council members that it's hard not to jump on the bandwagon in support of Guthrie's bill and shout "Hooray." But she cautioned that it is necessary to balance the needs of the schools and the county's economy.

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