Howard hopeful on state funding

Howard County officials are hoping for a larger share of state school construction money after a warm welcome by Maryland's new governor at his first Board of Public Works meeting.

"One of the strongest, greatest counties in all of Maryland!" Gov. Martin O'Malley exclaimed as County Executive Ken Ulman, all 11 county legislators, four County Council members, plus a squad of school board and staff members approached the microphone for their turn at the annual session dubbed the "beg-a-thon" by cynics. It is when the board -- composed of the governor, state treasurer and comptroller -- hears from local officials from all over Maryland who come to Annapolis to plead for more school construction and renovation funding.


O'Malley has promised to spend $400 million in state funds for school construction next fiscal year -- more than a third more than former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged. About $160 million of that is still up for grabs, and Ulman said later that he is hoping for a good year. Howard already has recommended approval of $15 million in state funds, compared to the $18 million total the county got from the state last year.

"I'd be hopeful for an amount well in excess of that [$18 million] number," Ulman said after Wednesday's meeting.


Ulman presented himself to the board "as a proud product of the Howard County school system," but school board Chairman Diane Mikulis appeared to make the biggest impression on the board when she pointed out that Howard's contingent included two former county executives [Del. Elizabeth Bobo and state Sen. James N. Robey] in addition to Ulman, and that two County Council members formerly served on the school board.

"We like to recycle people," she said to laughter. She then pointed out that the county's school population has nearly doubled -- from 25,000 to 48,000 children -- in two decades, and that the county has built 30 new schools in that time.

School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said that Howard requested $52.2 million in state funds for next fiscal year and has a 10-year capital program that is estimated to cost $837 million -- mostly for renovations and additions, including new classrooms for all-day kindergarten.

"The request we are making is based on our needs -- not only for now but for the future," Cousin told O'Malley, new state Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp. The final decision on school funding is theirs.

Ulman was upbeat after the meeting.

"I consider the governor a friend, and the comptroller and treasurer as well. I'm optimistic that with this additional round that Howard County will be included in the proportions that are needed," he said.

At their delegation meeting earlier that day, several Howard legislators suggested that the annual Board of Public Works meeting on school construction isn't necessary.

"Will that be lessons in ring kissing?" Republican Del. Gail H. Bates asked jokingly about the meeting. Robey, a Democrat, said the beg-a-thon should be canceled. "They should get rid of it. What's going to happen [with school construction funding] is going to happen," he said.


"I agree," Bobo said.

Later, Ulman didn't disagree.

"The governor understands this from his time as [Baltimore] mayor. You take a lot of personnel out of the county for a whole day."

Also Wednesday, Howard's state legislators unanimously approved six local bills in a delegation meeting that set a record for brevity and good will.

"This is my kind of meeting," joked freshman Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat, after the five-minute session.

"There really was not anything out there that was controversial," said Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman.


House delegation Chairwoman Del. Shane E. Pendergrass said the idea was to vote on "low-hanging fruit" first.

"The other half's [of delegation bills] going to be harder. It's going to be a good delegation," she said.

Twelve more bills await votes -- including five new proposals -- covering items as diverse as expanding the county Elections Board from three members to five, to allowing some beer tasting along with wine tasting at festivals. Another new request seeks $250,000 in state bond money for the private Norbel School in Elkridge. The other two new items would give county sheriff's deputies bargaining rights and expanded workers' compensation benefits. The delegation plans a hearing Feb. 8 in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City on those new local bills and on statewide issues.

The meeting Wednesday morning featured a quick vote with no debate on four bond bill requests for $500,000 in state money for each of four projects -- the proposed Robinson Nature Center in West Columbia, the North Laurel Community Center, the Blandair Regional Park project in east Columbia and a proposed parking garage in Ellicott City.

In addition, the delegation approved a bill that would lighten the property tax burden on people who buy subsidized homes under the county's Moderate Income Housing Unit program by making them pay property taxes only on the portion of the house they own. Currently, buyers must pay full property taxes on the houses, even though the county Housing Commission typically owns up to 49 percent. Because of high home prices, that puts an extra financial burden on people trying to use the program.

The other bill approved would allow the county to file a state-required finance report one month later each year. Two other bills on the agenda -- to extend workers' compensation insurance to volunteer auxiliary police, and to give county zoning authorities more power to enforce regulations -- were delayed for more study.


Once approved by the county delegation, each local bill must win approval from the full General Assembly, though that is often perfunctory as a matter of local courtesy. The delegation will meet Wednesday to consider other bills.