County seeks to preserve funding

Protect our money.

That was what Anne Arundel officials told the county's state delegation at a meeting yesterday to discuss priorities for the 90-day General Assembly session that begins today.


County Executive Janet S. Owens also asked legislators to consider bills that would ease the limits on liquor licensing, grant more police powers to arson investigators and provide tax exemptions for nonmilitary federal workers stationed overseas. But money - for county schools and other service agencies - was her favorite subject.

"Protect every penny we can because we need every penny," she told the lawmakers.


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has asked state agencies to prepare spending plans that are 12 percent below this year's budget, a move that Anne Arundel officials worry could leave the county's departments of Health and Social Services underfunded. Those state-funded departments could then ask the county for more money, straining an already-tight Anne Arundel budget.

Ehrlich has also said he plans to devote a total of $100 million to school construction, providing less than the amounts requested by some individual counties. Anne Arundel officials worry that with so many jurisdictions competing for limited dollars, their crowded school system will come up short. Last year, the county got about $4 million of the $32 million it requested

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat who is also a county parks and recreation official, said local leaders are right to be concerned.

"This is the number one issue before counties around the state," the speaker said, adding that he will push for every dollar he can for school construction.

Busch hopes to raise some money by closing what he says is a $60 million tax loophole that allows corporations to avoid county recordation fees and state transfer taxes.

County finance chief John Hammond said he's especially concerned that the county could lose a $7.8 million utility deregulation grant. The state has offered the grant to compensate counties for tax revenue lost to deregulation.

Still, county officials said they are optimistic about their financial picture.

"Things are looking better than they were last year and far better than they were two years ago," Owens said.


The county is not forwarding many splashy legislative proposals.

Owens drew widespread attention during last year's session with a proposed tax on county cell phone users. Legislators scoffed at the idea, and Owens made only a halfhearted suggestion yesterday that the proposal be revived.

"That dog didn't hunt," she said. "In fact, that dog didn't even make it to the farm."

None of her proposals for this session seems so divisive.

The county executive and economic development officials hope the state will loosen restrictions on liquor licensing so restaurants can more easily open multiple locations. The state eased licensing requirements in 2000 and 2002, but restaurants can still open no more than two locations that serve alcohol in the sprawling county.

"The disturbing part is that there's still a need that's not being met," said William Badger, the economic development director, citing a recent study that showed residents want more dining options.


Badger said the county will present a draft of the proposed legislation, which many delegation members say they'll at least consider, at a Jan. 21 meeting.

Del. Mary Ann Love, chairwoman of the county's House delegation, joked that between the liquor bill and continuing debates about slot machines, "this is going to be a session where we're going to drink and we're going to gamble, so it shouldn't be too bad."

Owens said she also hopes the state will require assisted-living homes to have backup power generators. Some senior homes were without power for hours or days after Tropical Storm Isabel struck Maryland in September 2003. A similar bill failed last year. Del. Robert A. Costa, an Anne Arundel Republican, said he has submitted a new version for this session.

Owens said she also wants civilian federal employees who are serving overseas assignments to be exempt from state taxes. She said the measure, which would apply to about 1,000 workers, would primarily benefit National Security Agency employees.

In a quest that would not require legislation, Owens is asking Ehrlich to turn over 559 acres off Interstate 97 that was part of the Crownsville hospital property and that the state has declared excess land. Early reports indicate the property might not require as much environmental cleanup as once thought, Owens said. But she warned that she might ask the state for financial assistance to clean up the site, which she said would make excellent parkland.

Other county leaders are also requesting legislation.


Fire Chief Ronald Blackwell is asking legislators to grant broader power - including the ability to serve warrants - to arson investigators. Noting the recent fires that destroyed a Charles County subdivision, Blackwell said fire investigators should be allowed to pursue crimes as aggressively as their police brethren. Fire investigators can obtain warrants but must have them served by police.

Richard Baker, superintendent of the county's detention center, said he wants the state to grant prison officials more control over which inmates enter work-release programs. State guidelines allow some prisoners who could pose discipline problems to enter work release, he said.

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer is asking legislators to consider restructuring the school board so members would represent geographical areas of the county. Moyer has raised the issue because no current board member is from Annapolis, the county's largest city.