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County likely gains budget reprieve

The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County probably has won a reprieve from major budget cuts, thanks to some of the local bills that passed the General Assembly in its final days.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to sign legislation that will save the county Health Department $573,000 in inspection fees during the next fiscal year and reimburse it $104,000 for inspections last year, according to county officials.

Most of the savings comes from passing on the costs to restaurants, food processing plants and residents who drill water wells.

"While it was painful to do, we would have had to cut programs in the Health Department," said Del. Mary Ann Love, a Glen Burnie Democrat who chairs the county's House delegation.

County Executive John R. Leopold echoed her comments and praised the delegation for pushing for the increases.

"If we had not been successful in passing this legislation, we would have faced the possibility of cuts in essential services," said Leopold, who got most of his legislative agenda passed in the session that ended Monday.

Once the measure is signed into law, the county will be able to raise license fees for restaurants and food processing plants from $300 to as high as $500, depending on the size of the establishment. The money will help the county pay for the $247,000 in inspection costs that were not covered by the fees. The county now collects about $505,500 in licensing fees.

The removal of the cap brings the county in line with Baltimore and other counties that have obtained exemptions from the statewide cap.

By removing another cap, the county will be able to collect a higher permit fee from residents who drill wells. The current fee is capped at $160 per well or per cluster of wells, even though the county estimates the actual cost for the inspection and water samples at $532 per well.

After the legislation is signed by the governor, the county is expected to increase the fee to $532 for new wells and $266 -- or half the cost -- for replacement wells. County officials estimate this will save the county $325,000. The county says an average of 874 wells are drilled each year in Anne Arundel.

County officials won agreement from the full House and Senate to get reimbursed $104,000 from the Maryland Department of the Environment for testing and monitoring the well water for 83 homes and businesses near the Gambrills fly ash disposal site between October 2006 and April 2007. The money would come from a $1 million civil penalty levied on BBSS Inc. and Constellation Power Source Generation Inc. for contamination of public drinking water wells near BBSS' Gambrills sand and gravel mine. The bill, which awaits the governor's signature, would take effect June 1.

Nonprofits are expected to get a break from increases in county impact fees once the governor grants the county permission to exempt or provide credits to nonprofits. County officials are planning to increase impact fees intended to pay to expand schools, roads and sewer systems to accommodate growth.

Leopold said he wants to give credits or exemptions to nonprofits, such as Arundel Habitat for Humanity, to help secure more affordable housing. The total impact fee for a single-family, detached home is $4,904 for fiscal 2008, and Leopold is seeking to increase the fees.

County revenues from impact fees totaled $10.5 million in fiscal 2006 and $9.2 million in fiscal 2007. The bill is awaiting O'Malley's signature.

County officials also worked closely with state lawmakers on legislation that would create revitalization and incentive zones in advance of the military expansion around Fort Meade. The resulting bill will allow the county to negotiate an annual payment in lieu of taxes from Dallas-based developer Trammell Crow Co. to pay for improvements to nearby roads, schools, and water and sewer lines. The company plans to build a $700 million office complex at the Army post in West County.

Because the development is on federal land, the developer would not have had to pay property taxes. The money the county gets from the payment will help support infrastructure improvements for the Odenton Town Center, which is near the BRAC zone, Leopold said.

The county did suffer a setback from legislation that will ban video bingo machines statewide by July 1, 2009. The county will lose about $2 million in license fees and tax revenue in fiscal year 2010.

The county was one of the few places where the machines were allowed, but legislators said the machines were illegally proliferating. Lawmakers also were concerned that the machines could create confusion when voters consider a referendum to allow slot machines in Maryland in November.

The ban, which the governor is expected to sign, will cost jobs throughout the county, Love said. She said Anne Arundel's three bingo parlors did a good job of oversight.

"They did it well and got punished," Love said. "That tells any small business to be careful when you come to Anne Arundel County."

PASSED IN ANNAPOLIS

The following local bills were proposed and passed by the Anne Arundel County delegation:

HB 239/SB 120 - Repeals the requirement that fire and explosives investigators in Anne Arundel County have the rank of fire rescue lieutenant or higher. It requires that a fire and explosive investigator be employed by the county or Annapolis fire departments as a firefighter for at least five years and must maintain active certification.

HB 287/SB 123 - Allows the Anne Arundel Department of Detention Facilities to require applicants for correctional officers or other employees who have direct contact with an inmate in the department to submit to a lie-detector test. The law is expected to cost about $17,000 in fiscal 2009 and $22,000 annually thereafter. The bill takes effect Oct. 1.

HB 318/SB 252 - Allows the county to request a state and national criminal records check for prospective and current employees or volunteers.

HB 1607 - Allows school board members to receive an increase in stipends before their new term starts. The board president would receive $8,000, and each of the other board members (except the student member) would receive $6,000 annually. The bill would take effect July 1.

HB 241/SB 121 - Lifts the $300 cap on the maximum annual license fee that Anne Arundel County may charge food establishments - mostly restaurants - or food processing plants.

HB 303/SB 251: Requires that the well-driller permit fee reflect the Anne Arundel County Department of Health's actual cost of inspecting wells, collecting water samples and issuing certificates of potability.

HB 501/SB 398 - Requires the Maryland Department of the Environment to reimburse Anne Arundel County $104,000 for testing and monitoring the well water for 83 homes and businesses near the Gambrills fly ash disposal site between October 2006 and April 2007.

HB 515 - Authorizes Anne Arundel County to grant exemptions from or credits against development impact fees for development by nonprofit entities that have been in existence for at least three years.

HB 366/SB 206 - Creates BRAC revitalization and incentive zones that would allow the county to negotiate an annual payment in lieu of taxes with the Trammel Crow project. The money would be used to help build the Odenton Town Center.

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