Having missed the legislative deadline for a vote on updating the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) in November, the Howard County Council reintroduced legislation in January to complete the process.
Rather than being a simple exercise in formality, however, the new legislation provoked yet another all-nighter for the council, as passionate voices on both sides of the issue debated changes intended to manage the pace of growth in the county, which include tests for schools, housing allocations and roads.
On a related note, the council also introduced legislation calling for a referendum on extending the initial life of a bill to 70 days with two extensions of 35 days each, in order to avoid such a situation in the future.
Howard County Board of Education Chair Cynthia Vaillancourt said the board recommends amendments to make all open tests for school regions equivalent to below 100% of school capacity utilization, and said the board supports adding a high school test.
Growth vs. Limits
Howard Bank Senior Vice President John DeZinno argued that limiting housing stock would cause the price of existing stock to rise, pricing more low-to-moderate income families out of the county’s housing market.
“This bill still takes zero children out of overcrowded schools, crowding is still occurring largely from resales, there’s still no plan to compel redistricting, and overall APFO is actually working pretty well,” said Maryland Building Industry Association Vice President of Government Affairs Josh Greenfield. “The school board conducted very limited redistricting, even after sitting here and saying they got the message and they were going to [redistrict].”
He cited the Howard County Economic Development Authority’s recently released Economic and Fiscal Assessment regarding APFO legislation, which estimates losses of 8,000 jobs in the county, $56 million in government revenues and $1.9 billion in construction activity as a potential result of a development moratorium.
Among those who disagreed with that assessment was BreeAnne Chadwick, of Ellicott City.
“With developers, there seems to be an all-or-nothing mentality,” she said. “Moratorium does not mean never again, limiting growth does not mean stopping it completely. [T]heir interest seems to be shoehorning as many units as humanly possible on any piece of land, regardless of the impact upon the neighbors.”
Lisa Markovitz, president of the civic advocacy group The People’s Voice, said her organization favors passage of the bill, with minor technical fixes.
“APFO doesn’t define school wait in years, it limits the number of tests taken,” she said. “The maximum wait the school test can cause is actually not that long over the [regular development process] wait, which was predictable and already expected. This slowdown is not going to be long enough to a large number of projects at the same time to make significant market changes.”
Council, Executive Raises
A raise could be in order for the next seated county council and county executive, based on a recommendation from the county’s Compensation Review Committee. Accordingly, the county executive’s salary would increase from $178,000 annually to $226,000, and council members’ salaries would increase from $59,950 to $80,000 per year beginning in December 2018.
Jim Walsh, of Woodbine, termed the increase for council members excessive, favoring a continuance of the current compensation level index for inflation.
“It should be acknowledged that council members receive the same benefits such as health care and retirement plans as full-time county employees, as well as a $159 per month smartphone allowance,” he said. “If those additional benefits are considered, the total compensation package proposed could be $100,000 or more. I think the county is better served by having part-time citizen legislators who can bring a variety of experiences to the table, rather than expanding the council to a full-time position.”
North Laurel resident Brent Loveless, however, said the concept of adequate compensation was debated based on salary comparisons with neighboring jurisdictions, market rates, and a given level of service and relative values of responsibilities.
“The amount of the increase needed reached 25% to reach parity,” Loveless said. “[The recommendation] was made with the analysis of trusted individuals who deal with many financial matters in their respective committees elsewhere in the county.”
Also on the council’s agenda for January was consideration of a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement between the county and Nixon’s Farm Lane LLC, regarding construction and operation of a solar array.
“A similar PILOT was passed by this body in July 2014, but unfortunately that agreement was never executed by a previous administration for reasons unknown,” said Nixon’s Farm Lane CAO Phil Nichols. The current arrangement reduces the PILOT agreement from $349,628 to $262,713.
“There’s [a need] for the PILOT in order for the project to be successful, especially with the recent unanticipated reduction of renewable solar energy credits and changing market conditions,” Nichols said.
Finally, the council will consider amending several rules of procedure, moving the start time of legislative sessions and hearings to an earlier time of 7 p.m., and clarifying when the council can move to withdraw a piece of legislation.
“We have also heard from the public in relation to safety issues,” said Howard County Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4). The council is looking to adopt a new procedure whereby citizens testifying before the council no will longer have to provide a street address, but instead will provide a means of contact in case the council wishes to follow up with them.
Another proposal would reduce the five-minute testimony time limit for organizations to three minutes per speaker, in line with the time allotted for private citizens, but does not limit the number of speakers an organization can provide to testify.
School Budget, Honors
On Jan. 22, the National Education Policy Center designated Hammond High School a School of Opportunity, one of only eight schools in the country to earn that recognition. Hammond has seen increases in graduation rates from 2010 to 2016, with African-American students increasing their graduation rate from 80% to 92% in that time, while the graduation rates increased from 81% to 95% for Hispanic students and from 56% to 80% for students with special needs.
“Hammond’s recognition helps us communicate how our efforts to challenge students, support teachers and connect with families create engaging learning opportunities and solid preparation for higher education,” said Hammond Principal John DiPaula.
As part of his first operating budget as the confirmed superintendent, Michael Martirano is taking steps to close a structural imbalance that has plagued the Howard County Public School System since 2011.
Martirano cited expanded programs, salary increases and the lack of comprehensive planning to develop a sustainable budget plan as contributing factors to a $22.2 million negative balance that will grow this fiscal year by another $28.3 million.
“We must take ownership of the situation and reset our course to one that is fiscally responsible, yet still advances programmatic priorities to make HCPSS a premier school system,” he said.