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County Officials Want More Help From State
By Scott Wilson
"Really," said state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe (R-Howard), who chairs the county's Senate delegation, "the top priorities are all about money."
Howard legislators say that, apart from seeking to fulfill the county's ambitious financial wish list when the session convenes Jan. 14, one of their most important tasks will be to kill legislation that would draw Howard into the controversy over a proposed intercounty connector linking Interstate 95 to Interstate 270.
State Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's) plans to introduce a bill that would expand the ICC study area, now limited to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, north to include Route 32.
"It is certainly going to be a top priority of mine," said state Sen. Martin G. Madden (R-Howard). "The long-term impact of that would be devastating to Howard."
County Executive Charles I. Ecker (R) is behind plans to make hefty requests for state financial assistance. But Howard officials consider only a fraction of the requests, expected to exceed $60 million, to be new money.
The balance, county officials say, is money the state owes Howard because the county has paid in advance Maryland's share of the costs of speeding up local road and school construction projects. Essentially, Ecker says, he is using this legislative session to call the note for more than $40 million in unpaid bills from the state.
Ecker, a gubernatorial candidate, says he is "always optimistic" entering a General Assembly session. But this year, even aides and legislative allies say a request that includes more than $30 million for school construction, $4 million to buy a landmark 300-acre farm in central Howard and $30 million to improve three clogged intersections along state routes is probably wishful thinking.
Last year, Howard received $6 million in new school construction money, far short of the more than $30 million the county was seeking.
McCabe said the county's chances for more school aid are improved because Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) may have more money to pass around this year because of the healthy economy. The state typically distributes about $120 million in education aid to Maryland's 24 major jurisdictions.
This year, the governor may have an additional $100 million.
"We want to request as much as we can, but we are hopeful to get between $10 million and $15 million in school construction funding," McCabe said. "The delegation is united on that point."
The county also wants the state to match about $36.3 million in county money to improve three clogged intersections along busy state commuter roads.
County planners were disappointed when state transportation officials left money to widen the intersections -- Route 29 and Johns Hopkins Road, Route 29 and Route 216 and Route 175 at Snowden River Parkway -- out of a draft of this year's State Highway Administration budget.
Legislators will lobby for the money to be included in the budget during the three-month session.
Although the money would be paid over several years, Howard's budget director, Raymond S. Wacks, said that "we want to get it in our budget this year so we can begin the planning."
Howard's request is unusually large because this year the county is seeking state help to buy the Smith Farm, the legacy of millionaire eccentric Elizabeth Smith, whose death last year put the property in the hands of heirs.
Howard officials have asked Glendening to set aside $4 million -- half the farm's purchase price -- in his budget.
If he does so, Howard legislators would not have to compete with the rest of the 188-member General Assembly to get the money from a $15 million-a-year pot used to finance local projects.
Ecker, who would have to find the $4 million balance, has talked about turning the farm into a park to keep it from developers, who have expressed interest in building on the 300 acres on the edge of Columbia.
"It certainly has a sense of urgency about it," Madden said.
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