ANNAPOLIS – Howard County legislators have two major issues on their plates as the legislative session gears up: funding the county’s top-ranked school system and approving a bond issue for historic renovation of Columbia’s Blandair Mansion.
The county delegation is sponsoring two different legislative proposals to raise county real estate transfer taxes to fund education.
County Executive James N. Robey’s plan would impose a .5 percent increase on all property sales and bring in an estimated $10 million to $12 million in revenue earmarked for schools.
The other bill, proposed by Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard, targets the sale of new homes with a 1 percent increase, exempting established residences, to produce $6.6 million, based on construction expectations in 2005, said Ray Wacks, county budget director. It, too, would fund education. The money is for school construction and renovation, said Board of Education Chairman Courtney Watson. The school district’s 2005 budget includes construction of a new high school and two elementary schools, as well as renovations to several schools, she said. The county spent 60 percent of its budget on education last year, said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard, delegation chairman.
“That’s what the county wants. Residents really value education above all else,” Kittleman said.
But funding education has cost Howard County some of its most established citizens – only 10.8 percent of county residents are age 60 or older, much lower than the state average of 15.2 percent, said Delegate Gail H. Bates, R-Howard.
“Once they’re to the point when they can retire, the choice is generally not to stay in Howard County, because the taxes are so high,” said Bates. To slow that trend, Bates is sponsoring the Aging in Place Act, granting a 50 percent property tax credit to seniors. The logic is that seniors should not be pushed out of the county by taxes that fund schools, a service they no longer use, she said.
Second on the agenda is a bond bill, which will provide up to $500,000 needed to renovate Blandair Mansion, a now dilapidated plantation home near U.S. 29 and Route 175 in Columbia. The plantation, a swath of open space surrounded by dense development, was home to such notables as Theodorick Bland, longtime chancellor of Maryland, and naval commander Isaac Mayo.
The delegation is also tackling a legal loophole instituted a decade ago allowing corporations to sidestep millions in transfer taxes when assets are sold. With corporate sales increasing, businesses are benefiting, but the county is hurt, said Lloyd Knowles, husband and office volunteer of Delegate Bobo, the bill sponsor. A public school facilities surcharge bill, which would impose a $12,000 fee on new home construction, has the best chance of passage, said Bobo, although the exact amount may be adjusted later. Prince George’s County had success with similar legislation last session. “We’re one of the only counties in the Baltimore-Washington area that doesn’t charge a surcharge or excise tax on new homes,” Bobo said. The move would produce an estimated $11.7 million in 2005, with a gradual decline until 2025, when it is predicted that the county’s zoning will be saturated, said Wacks. Revenue estimates may increase if the county includes senior housing in the law, a move still under debate, Wacks said. A third proposal by Bobo would allow the County Council to determine developers’ fees to cover costs of public works expansions, such as sewer lines, that result from the development – a power withdrawn from the council in 1992. Bobo’s bills target development intentionally, she said. “I believe that it is because of growth in the county, that is the largest reason we are in need of so many schools,” Bobo said.
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