Disappointed by the limited fund-raising power they are being given by the area's delegates to the General Assembly, members of the Harford County Council are already looking for new ways to address the county's school crisis.
"We are being boxed into a corner," Council President Robert S. Wagner said Friday after learning that the county's legislative delegation rejected most of the council's requests for new revenue sources to pay for school construction and renovations to older buildings. "We are going to have to look at other ways to address the needs of schools."
Wagner said there has already been discussion among the majority of the council members to further limit new housing development in areas where schools are overcrowded.
On Friday morning, the delegation approved a bill that would limit the council to imposing an impact fee of up to $10,000 on new homes built in the county to pay for school construction.
"No, I'm not at all happy with what they gave us," Wagner said. "We got a couple of slices out of the loaf we needed. I don't believe this will go nearly far enough to solve our school problems.
"I'm glad we got something," Wagner said, "but it's not much."
In a letter to the delegation last week, Wagner reiterated the council's request for a number of revenue sources to pay for school improvements. They included the impact fee, along with the authority to impose an excise tax on the purchase of new and existing homes, an increase in the transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent, and the ability to repeal the $30,000 transfer tax exemption for owner-occupied residences.
"It's extremely disappointing," Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat who represents Joppa and Edgewood, said of the delegation's action. "They have stuck their nose up in the air to the schoolchildren in our county and the parents. It is hard to believe that they would do such a thing."
"This is most unfortunate," said Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp.
"We have a school crisis on our hands," she said. "Nobody likes to raise taxes, but there are times when you have to do it. This is one of those times."
Stepp said she thought members of the delegation understood the county's problems.
She was referring to parents who have turned out in force at council meetings over the past year to complain about school crowding. They complained that some schools were nearly 30 percent over capacity. They said this jeopardized the safety of their children and was not conducive to learning.
They told of barrels in the halls at Edgewood High School to catch water from a leaking roof, and mold in the library at Bel Air High that prohibited some students from using the facility. One parent complained that her blind son was forced to ride a school bus more than three hours to school.
"I thought we are all on the same page," Stepp said. "I thought we all understood the problems. I thought we are all moving in the same directions to fix them. Obviously, the delegation is not."
"This is not the best bill, but it's a good bill," Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the county's 11-member delegation, said of the legislation allowing for the impact fee on new homes. Glassman, a Republican, represents the northern part of the county.
Del. Susan K. McComas, a 35th District Republican, called it a compromise bill and said, "This is the best we can do at this time to solve the problem. This is what will pass. A half a loaf is better than no loaf."
The delegation vote was the critical vote on the bill. Glassman said that the General Assembly would go along with the delegation's decision.
Deb Merlock, vice president of legislative affairs for the Harford County Council of PTAs, said she "was pleased that the delegation moved forward to give [the] council some opportunity to address the school issue.
"Anything for education is good," she added, "but we believe they still need to go further."
Merlock said she would have preferred the council have several options when looking for new sources of school construction funds. "Let the County Council decide which is the best source of revenue. The council and the citizens should be the ones that make the decision. The council would draft the legislation and take it to the public."
During Friday's delegation meeting, no amendments were offered to the bill to give the council additional fund-raising authority.
Del. Mary-Dulany James, a 34th District Democrat, offered a half-dozen amendments that would have reduced the council's authority to impose the impact fee. She wanted to limit the amount to $2,500 per home. When that failed, she sought to reduce the limit to $5,000. It was also rejected.
The delegation also rejected her efforts to reduce the sunset provision of the bill from 10 years to five years.
James said she opposed the bill because she was not certain that the impact fee funds could be used for school renovations and that 75 percent of the school system's capital needs are for school renovations. She said the county should also consider a lease/buy-back arrangement to satisfy its need for additional school capacity.
Susan Stroud Parker, co-director of government affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said the amendments offered by James and supported by Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a 35th District Republican, "were designed to make a bad bill better."
She expressed concern that it could make housing less affordable to members of the county's volunteer fire department and young people moving into the county to take teaching jobs.
Reducing the number of new homes in the county could also help solve the school problem, according to Guthrie.
In October, the council passed legislation that changed the county's adequate public facilities laws to halt preliminary approval for new housing units in any school district with a school exceeding 115 percent of its enrollment capacity. Before that, the limit was 120 percent.
That doesn't go nearly far enough, Guthrie said. He plans to introduce a bill at the Feb. 17 session of the council that would cut the 115 percent figure by 5 percentage points a year until it reached 100.
"I guarantee you that I will have more support for my bill because of what the delegation did," he said. His original plan was to reduce the school capacity rate at which preliminary development approval is granted by 3 percentage points a year.
Stepp said she has spoken with three other council members concerning the introduction of new adequate public facilities legislation. Wagner said that Guthrie's bill would open discussion on the topic and other members of the council could offer their amendments.
"Several of us don't see the rationale of [Guthrie's] gradual decline," Wagner said. "Let's just drop it to 105 percent or 100 percent."