Howard County's nearly decade-long struggle to decide how and when to modernize government offices is now for the County Council to decide, and speakers at a public hearing showed sharp divisions on the complex issue.
No one at the council's hearing on part of the capital budget Thursday night disputed the need to renovate the aging George Howard Building where the session was held. But two other aspects of County Executive Ken Ulman's newest plan did draw fire.
One involves the $4 million Ulman wants to spend to buy office space in a proposed four-story building at the Oakland Mills Village Center. Critics say it violates county parking regulations, is too expensive and isn't really part of the government office issue.
But Phillips Engelke, a member of the Oakland Mills Village board, testified that the board favors the purchase because it is key to construction of a four-story mixed-use office building called Meridian Square, providing long-term help in reviving the village center.
"We need a strong mixed-use development to be successful. We see Meridian Square as a catalyst," Engelke said.
The second difficult aspect of Ulman's plan involves selling two parcels near the existing complex on Court House Drive to help pay for the $22 million overhaul of the 1976 office building.
"This is looking like nothing more than a bait-and-switch operation," said John W. Bailey IV of Columbia, referring to reports that Ulman was quietly considering the Oakland Mills deal last spring during budget deliberations but didn't reveal it to the council then. Bailey is vice chairman of the county's Republican State Central Committee, but he didn't mention that at the hearing.
County Public Works Director James Irvin, who watched the testimony, said later that it wasn't revealed because Ulman had made no decision about the project last year.
"There wasn't anything to discuss at that time," Irvin said.
Bailey and several other speakers also criticized Ulman's proposal to sell county-owned land within a quarter-mile of the current complex. They argued that open land is too scarce to lose and may be needed if a new circuit courthouse and more government offices are eventually to be built in Ellicott City.
"This [sale] means that county government and the courts will never expand in Ellicott City," said former county Councilwoman Angela Beltram of Ellicott City.
Maureen Eiker called selling the land on Rogers Avenue and behind the District Court building off Court House Drive "shortsighted and myopic." Last year's goal of consolidating county offices in one place would be reversed under this plan, critics argued.
Ulman, a Democrat, gave up trying to redevelop the current government office complex with a $250 million project because he said the county simply can't afford it. The renovation of the George Howard Building represents a return to a plan last in place in 1999.
Other speakers, including three articulate schoolchildren, came to support more skateboard parks, athletic fields and the proposed Robinson Nature Center in west Columbia.
"I believe this investment in our environment will pay off in the future," Atholton Elementary fourth-grader Colin Steplowski told the council members.
The County Council is to hold a work session Tuesday to begin discussing the capital budget request, excluding school projects. A separate hearing on capital and operating budgets for schools, libraries and the community college is scheduled for April 29 at 4 p.m. in the George Howard Building. A final budget vote is scheduled for May 22.
Ulman proposed a $421 million capital budget April 1, but just under half that is for self-supporting water and sewer projects financed through separate user taxes.
A new fire station on Route 103 just north of Route 100 would get $2.9 million, and the proposed Robinson Nature Center on Cedar Lane in West Columbia would get $9.5 million. The North Laurel Park and community center would get $18.7 million.