Councilman to introduce facilities bill


County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, who introduced last year a hotly contested bill to reduce the crowding in Harford public schools, is preparing new legislation, which could be presented to the council as early as Tuesday, to further reduce school crowding by limiting housing development.

Guthrie's proposal comes as the county's legislative delegation to the General Assembly is working on a bill that would give the County Council the authority to impose an impact fee of up to $10,000 on each new house built in the county to help pay for school construction and renovation.

There is concern that Guthrie's new measure could disrupt the delegation's efforts.

"The timing couldn't be worse," County Executive James M. Harkins said Friday morning when told of Guthrie's plan. Harkins was in Annapolis to meet with the delegation to discuss a school funding plan and other issues.

"I can't believe it," Harkins said. "Here we are in Annapolis trying to get a new revenue stream to pay for schools, trying to get everyone to sit at the table and work out the details. Wow, I thought we were all on the same team."

Some worry that a political battle in Harford County could antagonize members of the delegation and disrupt efforts to secure the enabling legislation that would allow the council to impose the new fees.

Under Guthrie's proposal, which he said is still being tweaked, the county's adequate public facilities laws would be tightened to eventually bar preliminary approval of new housing in any district with a school that has more than 100 percent of its designed enrollment capacity. Guthrie, who represents Edgewood and Joppatowne, is the lone Democrat on the council.

In October, the council passed legislation that would halt preliminary approval of new housing units in any school district with a school exceeding 115 percent of its capacity. Before that, the limit had been 120 percent.

Council President Robert S. Wagner, who said he had learned only recently of Guthrie's proposed bill to change the adequate public facilities laws, said that he could "envision the threshold of 115 percent going to 100 percent very quickly."

Wagner, a Republican, expressed disappointment in the Harford delegation's school funding plan. "We're being short-changed," he said. "Basically, it gives us a half a loaf when we really needed a full loaf.

"I'm not surprised that this is the way they are going on one hand, but on the other hand, I'm taken aback by their rejection of the local legislators' request," he said, referring to several solutions the County Council suggested in a meeting with Harford's state lawmakers last year. "We were hoping they would give us the tools that we asked for, the tools that we need to address the school problem."

During a meeting with the delegation last summer, council members asked for the authority to impose a variety of fees or taxes to raise revenue to address what was being described as a "school crisis" in the county.

The council members asked for the right to impose an excise tax on new homes. They also wanted an increase in the transfer tax on the sale of new and existing homes from 1 percent to 1.5 percent and the right to impose an impact fee on new homes.

They also wanted to repeal the $30,000 transfer tax exemption for first-time homebuyers.

In a letter to the delegation then, Wagner said the council "would be amenable to any other funding source that could be found within state law as a possible revenue source."

"They are not giving us nearly what we asked for," Wagner said Friday of the latest plan in Annapolis. "It's disappointing that that is the way it is going."

Under Guthrie's proposed bill, the existing 115 percent enrollment figure at which preliminary approval for housing development is halted would be cut by 3 percentage points a year until it reached 100 percent.

Wagner said he didn't see the rationale behind the gradual decline. "We could put in a bill to cut it to 105 percent or 100 percent in one step if the delegation doesn't give us what we asked for."

Current laws a 'joke'

Guthrie called the current adequate public facilities laws a "joke" and said they do not go nearly far enough to address the concerns of parents for the safety of their children and the quality of education in the county's 50 public schools. He said that some schools have 25 percent or more students than they were designed to handle.

"The fire marshal would not allow us to have 10 percent more people in the council chamber than the code allows, but we pack the kids in our schools," Guthrie said. "It doesn't make sense to me."

Del. Barry Glassman, a Republican and chairman of the county's legislative delegation, said the lawmakers are moving in the direction of approving legislation that would allow the county to impose an impact fee of up to $10,000 on each new home built in the county.

"It's the best chance we have of getting something through the House and the Senate," he said. "The Senate has given a go-ahead on the impact fee, and I believe I have enough votes to get it through the House.

"It is not everything I wanted," said Glassman, "but it moves us forward. It's the best I can get at this time."

Based on the average number of homes built in the county in recent years, Glassman estimated that an average $5,000 impact fee on each new home would generate about $8.5 million a year.

During the delegation meeting Friday morning, concern was expressed that funds collected from an impact fee on new homes could only be used for new school construction and not for the repair of existing schools.

Harkins said that he believed the impact-fee revenue could be used if the renovation involved increasing the capacity of the school being renovated.

Parents speak out

During a pre-budget hearing Jan. 22 at Joppatowne High School, Harkins heard from more than a dozen parents who complained about the state of school buildings in the county.

They spoke of mold caused by poor air quality in the library at Bel Air High School and of high temperatures in classrooms. One parent complained that the county provides air conditioning for inmates at the detention center but not for children in school.

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