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School Renovations Given $15 Million

Amount More Than Was Expected

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page HO03

Howard County received a bonus from the Maryland General Assembly before it adjourned this week when lawmakers approved a total of $15.2 million for school construction, nearly $10 million more than county officials had anticipated.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) initially had proposed just under $5 million for Howard school construction in his budget, said Del. Frank S. Turner (D-Howard), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. The legislature indicated early on that it would push for a considerably larger amount.

Del. Neil F. Quinter (D-Howard) works the phone Monday, the last day of this year's Maryland General Assembly session. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

"We were very energized and very focused on expanding that pot," Turner said.

The fast-growing school system, which now has 47,500 students, received about $8.8 million this school year from the state to help build and renovate schools. Courtney Watson, chairman of Howard's school board, said the increased allocation should enable the school system to fund most, if not all, of the $18.4 million in renovations planned at older elementary and middle schools in the coming budget year.

Those renovations had been in doubt as recently as last week, when the county executive, in his proposed capital budget, suggested postponing $9.4 million in school renovations.

"It's very good news for sure," Watson said.

The General Assembly also approved creating Howard's first revenue authority, which will have the power to finance projects such as a parking garage for Ellicott City or the county's possible purchase of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Herman Charity, Robey's executive assistant, said local legislation creating the authority must be approved by the County Council. It may be a year before the authority is up and running, he said.

Two bills supported by the Howard delegation died in committee on the last day of the session Monday. One would have increased the county marriage license fee from $35 to $50 to assist the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County. Del. Neil F. Quinter (D-Howard), said House leaders decided against bringing the bill to the full House of Delegates for fear it would draw anti-gay marriage amendments pushed by conservative Republican lawmakers.

"It was very upsetting to me that politics got ahead of the people we were trying to serve," said Jodi Finkelstein, executive director of the center, which serves victims of domestic abuse and their families. Robey will propose that the center receive $25,000 in county money, or about the amount the fee increase would have generated, Charity said.

In addition, a Senate committee failed to act on a potentially controversial bill banning leg-hold animal traps in the county. Animal control officials say some animals caught in them are suffering unnecessarily. Similar legislation will be sought next year, county officials said.

Turner, who was a member of the budget conference committee in Annapolis, said money coming to Howard includes:

• An 11.6 percent increase in school system operating funds, amounting to $14.7 million.

• $12.3 million for Howard Community College's student services building and an increase of $741,000 in the college's operating budget.

• $475,000 to dredge the silt from Columbia's man-made lakes.

• 450,000 in planning money for the new North Laurel Community Center.

• $300,000 to continue the renovation of the historic Blandair manor property in Columbia, which is being converted to a regional county park.

Other local bills approved by the General Assembly include one that will allow more restaurants to obtain liquor licenses and another that will gradually increase the salary of the county sheriff to $85,000.

In addition, the legislature passed a measure requiring that local officials be notified if an operator applies for a state license or certification to run a health clinic serving 16 or more patients in the county. That bill stemmed from controversial efforts last year to open methadone clinics in Columbia and Elkridge.

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