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Building funds are sought for schools

How to Pay for More Howard County Schools: The Sequel started yesterday as County Executive James N. Robey named a 15-member committee for a two-month review of funding possibilities.

Robey's request last winter for a real estate transfer tax increase to leverage $215 million for schools was summarily rejected by the General Assembly. He has charged the committee with recommending a funding source - by Sept. 12.

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The idea is to have citizens do the research in time to prepare for the General Assembly in January - and erase state legislators' complaints this year that the issue was thrust upon them at the last minute.

"I'm reacting to what the delegation suggested to me last year - to put together a committee to make recommendations," Robey said. "All I know is that bubble called education capital programs [construction] is growing by the minute."

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County school officials are expected to request more than $125 million in construction funding next spring - more than double what the county was able to supply this year for schools. The problem is keeping up with growing enrollment and demands for top-quality education while state construction funding is fading - without hurting the county's fiscal health.

"This is a balance that must be achieved if we are to ensure our future success," Robey said.

The committee - composed mainly of citizen activists who are veterans of other, often related volunteer bodies - has been asked to review the need for school construction, examine ways of paying the cost and then recommend the best way to accomplish the goal.

"This is something I think is critical to the life of the county for the next 20 years," said utilities analyst Ellen Flynn Giles, named to the group to represent school interests. She is chairwoman of the school board's citizens advisory committee and has served on several redistricting committees.

David W. Berson, who for years has been chairman of the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance committee, which is charged with preventing school crowding by limiting development, said his experience involves school needs, not how to pay for them.

"The purposes are different. I think we need to look at all reasonable suggestions," he said.

Other participants have served on economic development, spending affordability and county housing boards.

Differing viewpoints

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And lest anyone think the executive has stacked the committee to give him more ammunition for the transfer tax idea, Robey provided spots for two former Republican political candidates and representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, local Realtors, builders and the Rouse Co.

"There's some names on there I wouldn't have put on. I wanted some opposition. I did not ask one person what their party affiliation is," Robey said.

He knew at least one person's party, though.

"Howard County taxpayers at this point certainly pay their fair share," said Steven H. Adler, last year's Republican candidate for county executive, who campaigned on a pledge not to raise taxes. This time, Adler said, "I don't have any preconceived notions going in."

Adler was recommended to the group by the county's Republican state senators. The GOP's County Council members chose Ananta Hejeebu, a Republican activist who briefly ran for County Council last year.

And Patricia Smallwood, a Realtor representing the industry, actively opposed the transfer tax proposal.

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Legislators have praised Robey's creation of the committee, though their attitudes may not have changed much. Democrats are still talking about education needs, and Republicans are emphasizing spending controls.

"I think it's a good idea. It will get people thinking about the problem," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican and Senate delegation chairman. Kittleman added that while "you've got to have seats for the kids," he personally opposes devices such as the dedicated fund Robey wanted to create with the transfer tax increase.

Tax reluctance

Noting a big local income tax increase enacted in May, as well as higher property taxes, Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said he does not want to add another tax.

"Unless somebody makes a real compelling case to me, I'm going to say no," he said.

But Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat who is chairman of the county's House delegation, said, "There's a tremendous need, and we know that. It comes down to how important schools are to the citizens of Howard County."


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