Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D) thinks the county has reached middle age. In a recent State of the County address, he said growing pains are being replaced by the aches and pains of age, and he spoke of the need to take steps now to see that the county grows old gracefully.

Robey talked about aging schools, aging communities--particularly the Route 1 corridor--aging infrastructure and an aging population.

With all this talk about getting old, which is strange in a county where most growth has occurred in just the last 30 years, at least Howard has a good bit of what some middle-aged people have: money.

Robey expects at least a $26 million surplus this year, and he said he'll use the county's healthy financial position to boost teachers' salaries, invest in Route 1 revitalization and jump-start the county's Agricultural Preservation Program, all without a tax increase.

"Yes, we're in good shape, but there is not enough money for everything that everyone wants," he said at a luncheon last week sponsored by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. "We must set our priorities carefully and choose wisely between competing interests."

Robey, who is working on a budget for the coming fiscal year, didn't offer many details, but he pledged to support funding to increase teachers' salaries and reduce class size.

"We need to bring Howard County back to Number One in school performance," he said, referring to the county's recent slip from first to second on a statewide standardized assessment test for elementary and middle school students.

He also said he would hire more police officers and fire and rescue personnel, and he promised to add a staff position and money in the budget for consultant services on revitalizing Route 1. He said he would include $50,000 for a consultant, but added, "If it costs more, I will find it."

That commitment met with approval from County Council member C. Vernon Gray (D-East Columbia), whose district includes a chunk of Route 1. "I was very, very delighted and pleased with the agenda that he has laid out," Gray said after the luncheon. "And I was also pleased with the sincerity of the message."

Others were cautious with their praise.

"I think it's a great initiative, and I'm happy to see that he's dedicating money to it. However, I want to make sure it's the whole of Route 1 and not just a portion of it," said council member Christopher J. Merdon (R), whose district covers the county's northernmost section of Route 1.

Merdon was critical of Robey's comments about managing growth in the county.

Sharing an anecdote about an encounter with a resident who called him a friend of developers, Robey had concluded, "I realized the depth of misunderstanding that must exist among the public" about growth.

Merdon said residents concerned about growth are typically well informed about county processes and, he said, "To say in the State of the County address that people have a lack of understanding about it is, in my opinion, insulting."

Saying growth is inevitable, Robey said he would request $15 million to buy development rights on another 2,500 acres of farmland, as part of the county's Agricultural Preservation Program. Money for the program dried up in 1997, with easements for about 18,000 acres purchased. The county's goal is 30,000 acres.

Robey also talked about stepping up efforts to deal with substance abuse and looking for ways to provide more affordable homeownership opportunities.

He accused the county's representatives in the General Assembly of playing politics when they rejected Robey's proposal to combine the county's two fire tax districts into one.

Legislators said the proposal was too complex to be heard this late in the process, several weeks past the deadline for submitting such bills. And some have questioned the timing of the request, coming as residents in the western part of the county could face a huge fire tax increase if a fire station is built there. A single fire tax district would spread the burden to everyone.

"I will continue to pursue and encourage our state delegation and our County Council to put aside parochialism on this issue and do what is right for Howard County as a whole," Robey said.