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Counties push for more tax authority

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The door to a portable classroom slams, and ice chunks fly from above as shivering teens, many in T-shirts and short sleeves, make their way to a reading class at Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City.

Mornings are the worst. "It's coldest then," said eighth-grader Taylor Boone. Yet the pupils have to leave their jackets in the school's main building because of security concerns.

His reading program meets in one of seven portable classrooms at the school, which is crowded despite a recent expansion that added four science rooms, a music suite, a bigger cafeteria and two classrooms for non-English-speaking children.

In Baltimore's booming suburbs, such crowding is a common problem, sparked by a lack of money to build schools. At a recent hearing in Annapolis, Howard County asked for $48.3 million in construction money, almost half the $100 million that the state has allocated for all districts. Maryland's other districts requested an additional $330 million.

Squeezed by the recession's impact on their revenues and two years of state cuts - all while facing growing enrollments and a state mandate for all-day kindergarten classes - county officials are worried.

Now, officials in Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties are pressuring their state legislators for new taxing authority to help build schools and to ease other growth-related problems by improving roads and hiring more police officers. They hope to raise millions of dollars annually by boosting taxes on home sales or cell phones, starting as soon as July 1.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey is seeking an increase in the real estate transfer tax or a surcharge on new home sales - money that would be channeled to schools. Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens is wooing legislators for a cell phone tax to hire police and firefighters. And on Friday, the Harford delegation agreed to County Executive James M. Harkins' proposal for a new fee of up to $10,000 on each new house built in the county to pay for school renovations and new classrooms.

"This is so insane," lamented Owens, a Democrat. "I don't want to be the executive who is in the position of dismantling all these services."

Legislators squeezed

As the battle is fought in local caucuses in the General Assembly, legislators complain that they're squeezed between those demands and political pressure to keep local taxes low.

Only Carroll's legislators have turned down pleas from county leaders for a real estate transfer tax. Even there, a deal might be in the works for next year.

State legislators such as Del. Mary Ann Love, a Democrat and leader of the Anne Arundel House delegation, say they are hearing a clear message from their constituents.

"When you tell them about the cell phone tax, they kinda go crazy," she said, especially younger families with lots of phones. "They don't get pay raises to pay those taxes. Everyone's strapped."

But while the legislators are fretting, the children who must dash to portable classrooms are shivering at Patapsco. The school is still holding classes in the outbuildings and is still 10 percent over capacity, even after the completion of a $4.2 million addition.

Last school year, before the addition opened, Patapsco was so crowded that administrators had to make traffic in the hallways one-way to reduce the number of collisions.

Speech and language classes were held in closets so small that the instructors had to use the ceiling for overhead projections. Teachers didn't have classrooms and had to haul their textbooks, papers and other materials around on carts.

"We were like sardines," said Patapsco's principal, Carol Mohsberg.

Now the halls are back to two-way, though pupils complain that they have to take turns opening their lockers because there's not enough space to stand two abreast. There is a classroom for every teacher, albeit not always a large room.

"It's what you would expect as working professionals," Mohsberg said.

But it didn't come easily. The community and school staff banded together to lobby for the improvements, testifying before the school board and attending every meeting to keep an eye on things.

Growing pains

The problem in the suburban counties is that their good schools and attractive neighborhoods are luring a lot of people. With price tags of $50 million for a high school and $20 million for an elementary, the counties can't keep up with growing enrollments, even as their older schools require major renovations.

"You look at the counties that are struggling - it's the growth counties," Robey said.

The options for county governments are limited.

"There's revenues or cuts," said David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. Last year, he said, 13 of the state's 24 jurisdictions raised taxes, and more state cuts and joblessness aren't helping.

Harford's impact fee for schools seems to be a way of raising additional revenue that the county's Annapolis delegation can support. Such support is crucial - bills affecting just one county are routinely approved by the entire General Assembly if that county's legislators support it.

"The impact fee sort of falls into what fees we can do without raising a tax," said Republican Del. Barry Glassman, adding that booming counties must find a balance between growth controls and the need for growth-produced revenues.

"If we force them to cut off growth, it hurts the local economy," he said.

Despite the green light Harford legislators gave to the impact fee, County Council members are disappointed they didn't receive more, such as the power to impose an excise tax on the purchase of new and existing homes, an increase in the transfer tax and a repeal of the $30,000 transfer tax exemption for owner-occupied residences.

"This is most unfortunate," said Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp. She had hoped legislators were moved by parents who told the council of barrels in the halls at Edgewood High School to catch water from the leaking roof and mold in the Bel Air High library that prevented some students from using it.

Not politics as usual

The dispute between local officials seeking more revenue and state legislators resisting tax increases goes beyond the traditional debate between liberals and conservatives.

In Carroll, County Commissioner Dean L. Minnich is at war with state Sen. Larry E. Haines over the transfer tax issue.

Haines is dead set against raising taxes. Minnich argued that Haines' opposition to the transfer tax is political, though both officials are Republicans.

"In my view, that's what the objective is - to get this board of commissioners to raise the [county] tax rate so they can get us thrown out and get the candidates they supported elected," Minnich said. "There is absolutely no doubt about it."

Haines scoffed at that opinion: "I take a position on every issue to do what I think is right."

Haines noted that Carroll is getting state money for several school projects. "I don't think we have any real problem on funding for school construction," he said.

Sun staff writer Ted Shelsby contributed to this article.

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