Lawmakers seek accord

The Baltimore Sun

They have sparred in the local press and traded jabs from their respective offices.

Now members of Harford's County Council and General Assembly delegation are looking to a series of joint work sessions to air their differences and perhaps find a better way to address issues facing the county.

"We are all working for the same county," said Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, an Edgewood Democrat.

The sessions, which will begin July 24 at the council offices in Bel Air, are a first, said council President Billy Boniface, who arranged the meetings. If officials can discuss legislative priorities and what they would like to accomplish in Annapolis before the 2008 legislative session, maybe they can avoid the acrimony and disappointment that have occurred in the past, he said.

"We want to create a better dialogue," said Boniface, a Republican. "This has never been done before. ... It will give us a chance to kick around ideas."

Boniface and Del. Barry Glassman, also a Republican and chairman of the delegation, are lifelong friends who hope their amity will spill over into the discussions, they said.

"We want to sit down, talk with them and go over their concerns," Glassman said. "I think the work sessions will be productive. We can get draft proposals done ahead of time and the sessions may help the council understand the state budget process."

Boniface also plans workshops in September and November, well ahead of the opening of the General Assembly in January.

Council members have repeatedly criticized the delegation for ignoring resolutions, denying requests for funds and refusing to allow the county to add revenue streams, most notably through an increase in the transfer tax.

Legislators counter that local leaders don't understand the state budget.

"It boggles the mind that there is a total separation between the two groups," said Guthrie. "We send them bipartisan resolutions of what the county needs, and they totally ignore us."

Guthrie plans to bring to the work sessions copies of several council resolutions that the delegation declined to act on. He also will renew the effort to seek an increase in the transfer tax, which is levied whenever a home is sold. The council cannot implement the increase without approval from the General Assembly.

"We can't keep borrowing without coming up with other sources of revenue," Guthrie said.

To help pay for more than $200 million in school construction projects that have been approved, the council has advocated increasing the transfer tax to 1.5 percent. The half-percent increase could generate as much as $10 million annually, he said.

If the increase is enacted, the council would then scrap the $8,269 impact fee assessed on sales of new homes, Guthrie said. It raised about $3 million last year, he said.

Guthrie, who has advocated the increase since he took office five years ago, calculated that, had the measure passed then, it could have generated about $40 million in revenue by now, enough to build an elementary school, he said.

"At least we can talk about these issues," Guthrie said. "This sniping does not get us anywhere. Without cooperation, we can't get anything done. Maybe, finally, something will happen."

Last week, the council unanimously approved a nearly $1 billion county budget for the next fiscal year that includes $23 million in forward-funding for school projects - money the county will spend to keep projects on target with the hope of reimbursement later from the state.

The state reimbursed the county $16 million this year for the Patterson Mill high school-middle school complex, which cost more than $70 million and is scheduled to open in September; many council members found the reimbursement amount lacking.

"This council and previous councils have acted responsibly in forward-funding schools," said Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" Chenowith, a Republican from Fallston who called the reimbursement "a drop in the bucket."

"The delegation should be ashamed to admit it only brought home $16 million out of a $70 million project," she said.

Glassman countered that the council fails to understand the state's looming deficit, which could possibly exceed $1.5 billion, he said.

"Clearly, they are out of touch with the state's budget," he said.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat from Havre de Grace, said she also will push for diversification of revenue and work on reduction of the county's debt.

"Revenue is generally based on property tax, and we can't keep going to the same well," Lisanti said. "Yet we cannot enact any new revenue without the General Assembly."

In addition to the workshops this summer, the two groups of lawmakers have set a June 12 public hearing on the issue of an elected school board. The council has unanimously supported changing from an appointed board to an elected one.

Glassman drafted a bill that would have phased in the change, but the measure never moved out of committee in this year's General Assembly session. He has said he will submit a similar bill when the legislature convenes in January.

"I think we are on the same page as the council," Glassman said. "But this will be a public forum, where we can take testimony."

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