When county officials sit down in the coming weeks for the spring ritual of budget reviews, it might be the last time until 2010 that the work will be done in the George Howard Building -- epicenter of county government for the past three decades.
County Executive Ken Ulman's plans involve work starting as soon as possible on a long-overdue $22 million renovation of the main government office building, meaning the seat of county government would move to rented office space, perhaps as soon as August.
Public Works Director James Irvin said he hopes to get the council and the executive back into the building by September 2009, but a shuffling of county office locations might mean some agencies won't return. The county's Gateway and Dorsey buildings are to be included in the next round of renovations in fiscal 2010.
Ulman is asking for County Council approval of his plan to sell county property that could bring $13.3 million to help pay for the work. The tracts include two parcels of unused county land near the existing government campus, and the old Gateway school building on Route 108 in Clarksville. The undeveloped land includes a parcel on Rogers Avenue near U.S. 40 and another on Martha Bush Drive behind the Maryland District Court building.
"Let's get it back on the tax rolls and let it generate revenue," Ulman said about the surplus property, though some council members are reluctant to give up the increasingly scarce land.
Ulman said county officials have determined it would be cheaper to rent office space elsewhere in the county than to follow the original plan -- temporary relocation to the Dorsey Building, a county-owned former warehouse on Bendix Road off Route 108. Renovations there would cost more than available leased space, he said.
In a recent letter to council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, Ulman wrote that "the systems in the Howard building are close to failure and we cannot continue to postpone action on this problem."
Republicans are a small minority in the General Assembly and often have trouble getting their bills approved. But this year Del. Warren E. Miller is poised to hit the jackpot, thanks to his bipartisan approach.
Miller is the prime sponsor of House Bill 358, a bill to create a database that would allow any citizen with a computer to go online and track how the state spends the public's money.
The measure inspired Greg Fox, the County Council's lone Republican member, to introduce a local ordinance to provide the same information on county spending. The bill was unanimously approved last month after Fox worked with the Ulman administration to delay the availability of the information until July 1, 2010, to fit better into technology director Ira Levy's work replacing county finance software.
Miller has tried for years to get his bill passed.
"Last year when I put the bill in, I had all Republican co-sponsors, and it didn't go anywhere," the delegate said.
This year, Miller had 47 co-sponsors in the House, including two Democratic committee chairs, plus Howard Democratic Dels. Elizabeth Bobo, Frank S. Turner, Guy Guzzone and Steven J. DeBoy. Public interest groups also endorsed the idea, and the bill passed the House with a unanimous vote March 17.
But, on March 28, Senate Budget and Tax Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie said he would not bring Miller's bill up for a vote because of a concern over the $250,000 price tag. Then, without explanation, Currie changed his mind, and his committee voted unanimously Monday to approve it.
"I'm thrilled that it passed," Miller said, pleased, though a little confused. He had no idea what prompted the turnaround.
"It's probably the most significant bill I've introduced or had considered," said Miller, who has been in office for five years.
Currie said he talked to House members about the cost and was satisfied the bill could proceed.
"We want to be fair," he said.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat and a committee member who also is Senate majority leader, said there was no controversy or debate when it came up.
"Nobody said a word," he said.
Kasemeyer and fellow committee member Sen. James N. Robey voted in favor.
"We have nothing to hide," Robey said. "We need more transparency in government."
On some issues, Democrats and Republicans can work well together, he added.
"Warren and I get along very well," Robey said. "I complimented him on the street recently on his understanding of the energy issues."