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Council facing a full agenda

The Baltimore Sun

The Howard County Council faces a meaty agenda for July. In a burst of activity before the annual August hiatus. votes are scheduled on a living-wage proposal, three Ulman administration environmental bills and the annual review of charts that slow development around crowded schools.

Another bill would provide binding arbitration rights for county police and firefighters. Final council votes are scheduled for July 30.

This year's school enrollment charts may seem routine, but they could be the most significant measure. The charts, which are key to delaying home construction near overcrowded schools, show that in 2010 all elementary and middle schools will meet the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance's crowding standards for the first time since the law's inception 15 years ago.

Meeting the standards means that no elementary or middle schools will be more than 15 percent over capacity in 2010. The law slows development around schools that are over that limit. It requires officials to look ahead three years to give the county time to build more classroom seats or change attendance boundary lines.

The living-wage bill could be contentious.

Sponsored by Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, and co-sponsored by Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, the bill would require contractors with five or more workers who do at least $100,000 a year in county work to pay at least $12.41 an hour, which is 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline. It exempts nonprofits and some contracts involving special circumstances.

That is higher than the $11.30-an-hour standard set for the Central Maryland region in a similar law on state government contracts signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley last month. Maryland was the first state in the nation to pass a living-wage bill, though Baltimore adopted one in 1994, and living-wage laws also exist in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties.

"I looked at what it costs to live and survive in Howard County," Ball said. He concluded it takes at least $52,000 a year for a family of four to get by in high-cost Howard. Ball said he calculated that if a husband and wife made at least $12.41 an hour, their combined earnings would reach that level.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. In the long run, he said, it could even save money by promoting longer-term employment, higher productivity and thus less need for publicly funded social help programs.

Terrasa said she strongly shares that view.

"I think it's very important. I'm very supportive of the concept," she said. Ball and Terrasa said that since the county is pushing the idea of housing that is affordable for working people, there should also be an interest in making sure working people have enough income to use it.

Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, also likes the idea of a living wage, but she said she needs to study the specifics in this bill.

Greg Fox, a western county Republican, is skeptical.

"I'm concerned about what it's going to do to the cost of government," he said, adding that "I don't think it's necessary. I think it's a free-market issue. I don't believe we need to put any artificial wage levels in there."

His position is similar to that of the county Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the bill and the idea. Heidi Gaasch, the chamber's government affairs director, said, "First and foremost, wages should be set in the marketplace, not by the government. It undermines the purpose of the competitive bidding process" and could drive up government costs.

Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she wants to see more details before reaching a decision. "This particular issue to me comes down to an appropriate amount -- how much of an impact it's going to have on county government."

Ball and Terrasa said a living-wage law should not have much impact on the budget, though they have no firm figures. "Most studies show it's been under 2 percent of a cost increase," Ball said.

County Executive Ken Ulman said the impact on the budget worries him, too, although he philosophically favors the idea of "paying people what they're worth and a living wage. I just need to look at the fiscal impact."

"It is the highest proposed living wage in the region. I need to look at the specifics," he added.

Ulman's environmental package contains three bills that would help spur the trend toward "green" construction.

One would require that minimal Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards be used on any county building of at least 10,000 square feet and any private structure of more than 20,000 square feet, based on a site plan submitted after July 1, 2008. In addition, commercial developers adopting higher LEED standards -- silver, gold or platinum -- could qualify for five years of property tax breaks of up to 75 percent.

Another bill would require any new county buildings constructed with at least 30 percent public money to meet silver LEED standards.

The third bill would encourage environmentally friendly techniques in residential development by offering builders a chance to get building permits more quickly through the county's housing allocation system.

The bill would take 100 allocations from the 250 allowed annually in the western county and make them available to developers anywhere in the county if "green" neighborhood techniques are used.

Terrasa is also sponsoring a bill to provide binding arbitration for contract negotiations involving county police and firefighters -- an initiative that voters overwhelmingly approved in a referendum last year.

Because police and firefighters have no right to strike, "there has to be some equalizing of their ability to negotiate," Terrasa said.


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