Park Funding, and Tax Credits, and Machetes. Oh my! (General Assembly Public Hearing Recap)
Posted by Ed C on Saturday, January 13, 2007
The public hearing for by the Howard County Delegation was held Jan 11, 2007 at 7:30 PM and lasted over 3 hours.
There were 15 bills on the agenda:
- Robinson Nature Center Bond Funding ($500 K)
- North Laurel Community Center Bond Funding ($500 K)
- Blandair Regional Park Funding ($500 K)
- Historic Main Street Ellicott City Parking Garage ($500 K)
- Zoning Regulations – Administrative Proceedings
- Property Tax Credit for properties jointly owner with HoCo Housing Commission
- HoCo Annual Report Filing Date
- Organic Beer / Wine Liquor License
- Carrying Machete – Prohibited Hours
- Local Aggregation of Public Utilities (withdrawn)
- Union Service Representation Fee
- Board of Education – Qualifications and Election of Student Member
- County Superintendent of Schools – Termination of Contract
- Auxiliary Police Officers Workers Compensation
- Aging in Place Act – Senior Tax Credit
At first, I thought the hearing was well attended with about 75 – 100 people in the Banneker Room. I didn’t really take a head count, so this is more of a guess. As the hearing progressed it became apparent that large portions of the audience consisted mainly of a few groups that were there for a particular issue. This is the first hearing of this type that I’ve attended so I cannot judge how it compares with other similar events, but other than those with a specific agenda, there was not a lot of general interest. In fact, I ended up telling a few people that I was just there in general and not for a specific agenda item. Is this how these things normally go?
The largest groups consisted of Liquor license holders that were opposed to (8), and Howard County public safety officials – Police, auxiliary police, sheriff’s and fire department representatives and Officer Lucas and his family members supporting (14).
Some of the most moving testimony came from the mother of Officer Pieter Lucas and from the Seniors Poly Thorton and Kathy Stefano that spoke in support of Aging in Place act.
I’ll try to give a quick summary / my impressions of the testimony for each bill below the fold and hopefully expand on a few of them in separate posts.
[First, please let me apologize to those whose names I going to misspell, that I didn’t catch at the time, or just those that I just completely mangle.]
(1), (2), and (3) Park Funding. The first three bills dealing with funding for parks were handled as a group with starting testimony from Gary Author, Director of he Department of Recreation & Parks. Only the Blandair Park proposal had any substantive comments.
Grace Kubofcik (Co-President, LWVHC) and Bridget Mugane, President of Howard County Citizen’s Association and Long Reach Village Board member spoke in favor of the current plan that calls for mixed use and includes recreational ball fields that will supplement fields at Oakland Mills High School.
Liz Beckerman (Thunder Hill Park Alliance), Brian Wallace (Alpha Phi Alpha representative) and Judd Malone (Howard County Tomorrow) spoke against the current plan and favor an alternate plan the calls exclusively for a nature park. (I’ll cover more of this in a separate post.)
(4) Parking Garage. Gail Bates (R District 9A) spoke briefly about the parking garage for Main Street in Ellicott City, and there was no other testimony that I caught about the bill.
(5) Zoning Regulations – Administrative Proceedings. There was a brief introduction and Bridget Mugane spoke in favor. Surprising to me, there was no testimony in opposition. Apparently, there is a similar process in Baltimore County and the view is that by being able to level fines for zoning enforcement infractions will force violators into quicker compliance rather than the current court process that can be lengthy.
For me, there is a fine line here and I could come down on either side. One of the current problems was stated to be that the current process is almost entirely complaint driven because of a shortage of county inspectors, and once a violation is cited it can take a long time for the issue to be addressed. Okay, maybe that could be improved with this bill.
On the other side, I currently need to deal with my town home community association, the Long Reach Community Association and the county zoning department; each with their own enforcement goals and items that they consider “serious violations.” Giving the county a bigger stick to beat residents into compliance seems to be a thing that can be abused by vindictive neighbors. Assuming the process is still going to be complaint driven this bill seems to just give incentive and a stronger mechanism for government sanctioned harassment.
(6) Property Tax Credit for Residence Jointly Owned by an Individual and the Howard County Housing Commission. This bill is part of the “affordable housing” umbrella. Currently there are 22 properties in HoCo that are jointly owned by the county and an individual in a shared equity program. The individual owns and pays a percentage of the mortgage and the county pays the rest, and currently the property owner pays all of the taxes on the property. This makes the property more costly for a low income individual and could prevent them from being able to participate. Passage of this bill would save the individuals about $17,000 in taxes.
The bill was supported by Grace Kubofcik (LWVHC) and by Roy Appletree (Association of Community Services of Howard County) spoke in favor and there was no opposition.
(more later, but here’s a preview: How come “Affordable Housing” is a good thing, but helping low / fixed income seniors is bad?)
(7) Changing the Report Date for County Finical Reports. Basically, a change in law moved the required date for Howard County to complete its finical reports from the beginning of November to the end of the month. This bill would allow align the date that the report is due to the state to coincide with the new county requirement. Large municipalities currently have a dead line of Jan 1st. The date was set so that the state would still have time to accept the inputs in a timely fashion from the county before the state’s finical report is due.
Thankfully, no one seemed to really care and the meeting moved right along. If there is a disagreement, I propose sharpened #2 pencils at ten paces for those that want to fight it out.
(8) New Liquor License Class for Organic Beer and Wine for MOM’s Organic Food Store. This bill will allow the My Organic Market (MOM’s) store at Route 1 and 175 (the old Burlington Coat Factory) building to sell organic beer and wine. Okay, the bill has a different title, but Dick Story, the Howard County’s economic development CEO started the testimony and came right out and flatly stated that they requested the bill to be so narrow that it only applied to this site. (Now, I’ve heard about Redheaded Eskimo bills before, but this is the first time I’ve heard one specifically stated as such.) Mr. Story stated that as far as he knows that because of the restrictions in the bill; size (less than 20,000 sq. ft) and volume (less than 15% of food sales) and sells predominantly organic foods that MOMs would be the only site within the county that would be coved by the law.
Seemed innocuous enough, but that just shows what I know about liquor licensing in Howard County. It seemed that all of the 50 current holders of liquor licenses to sell off-premise beer and liquor attended and where firmly against this bill.
- They objected to a “chain” being granted a license (There are five MOM’s in Rockville, College Park, Alexandria, Columbia East and Frederick)
- Feared that this would be the first step in allowing Safeway and Giant to getting licenses to sell alcohol which will be the end of the small, individual stores that currently exist.
- The current system restricts availability of alcohol to minors because of consequences to the current license holders. They actually had a few arguments for this that I had never considered before concerning shop-lifting and controlling access in a busy market.
A few comments that I noted:
Calvin Ball (D – District 2) testified that the previous council supported the bill, but could not state what the view of the current, newly elected members thought.
Del Shane Pendergrass (D- Dist 13) wanted to know what brands MOM’s sold with the implication that if she’s never heard of it then it was a niche product and would have less of a problem.
Shane Pendergrass in particular and the county seemed to really want to help out the establishment at this site and hoped that the opposing sides could reach a mutual agreement. Apparently, this site has been vacant and hard to fill and with MOM’s as an anchor it would really benefit the area.
(9) Carrying a Machete after dark. This bill was almost a running joke throughout the proceedings and generally got a good laugh each time it was jokingly referenced. Okay, I have reservations about this bill that I outlined before, but apparently this just adds to a current list of prohibited items (like brass knuckles and such.) and is not just a stand-alone prohibition. The new Chief of Police, William McMahon seemed to be in support.
(10) Public Utilities – Local Aggregation This bill was withdrawn. Apparently it has been superseded by another measure that I didn’t catch.
(11) Forcing non-union employees of the school system to pay fees to cover union expenses. The union feels that because non-union employees receive benefits from union negotiations and grievance processes they should pay some “fair-share” amount to the union to cover those costs. The union feels that this is a disincentive to joining the union because non-represented employees can save the dues but still get the benefits. The bill supposedly excludes using the fees to cover political and other union activities except for those costs directly incurred for employee representation issues.
I specifically used the word supposedly because I find it hard to believe that the union could separate its costs to the point that only the representation costs would be coved and the union would receive no other benefits.
Assuming that negotiations represent the bulk of the costs with staff, facilities and such and this cost is relatively independent of the number of represented employees. That is, the cost of the union to represent 4500 employees vs. 5000 (4500 members, 500 non-members) in negotiations is not going to be different. Say, the union currently spends $450,000 (just using $100 per 4,500 employees an example) and that those cost don’t change with representing 5,000 employees. The new fee would give the union an additional $50,000. That $50,000 will offset the negotiation cost but would free that money for other uses; uses which the people that have chosen not to join the union could strongly object to.
Sen. Allan Kittleman (R District 9) suggested that maybe a way to handle the situation would be to have a bill that would exclude non-union employees from indirectly benefiting from union representation in salary negotiations and grievance process. That way, the non-represented employees could decide to join the union or go it alone. The non-union employees would be responsible for negotiating their own salaries and benefits as wells as handling grievances. The union rep responded like Sen. Kittleman just asked her to pull his finger.
The union rep thought that having all of those employees negotiate their own salaries and benefits as totally unworkable. Somehow all of those non-union businesses and their employees throughout the county have seemed to find a way to work it, but for her it was a non-starter. Just think of the chaos if some of the school system employees started getting paid for performance – the horror.
(Sorry, but I did not catch the union representative name.)
(12) Providing for elections of a student member and allowing that student a vote in certain matters. Sorry, I zoned out on this one.
(13) Termination of Contract for the County Superintendent of Schools. Nope, didn’t follow this one either.
These last two deserve and will get posts of their own.
(14) Worker Compensation for Auxiliary Police Officers.
(15) Aging in Place.
If you actually read this far – thanks for you patience, if not, well I guess I can insult you here because you will not see it.