MARYLAND

Montgomery Council Backs Trolley Plan The Montgomery County Council reaffirmed its support yesterday for a proposal to link Bethesda and Silver Spring by trolley, casting aside an alternative offered by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) in an attempt to broker a compromise on a Metro Purple Line.

The council's 7 to 2 vote was intended to end debate over how to provide train service across Montgomery, despite continued division between the council and Duncan over the routing. The matter now rests with Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who is to decide by March which major transit projects to submit to the federal government for funding.

The council's majority expressed objections to Duncan's proposal and questioned efforts by the county executive and others to steer trains away from the Columbia Country Club and pricey homes in Chevy Chase. Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) asked whether it was fair to deprive people in Silver Spring, "some of whom clean the homes of the folks who live in Chevy Chase," of the ability to get across the county easily.

Duncan called the decision "a disappointment." He, like Ehrlich, has said he opposes the trolley plan because it would take land from popular hiking-and-biking trails. He was joined by council members Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) and Nancy Floreen (D-At Large).

Ex-Del. Shriver Joins Save the Children Former state delegate Mark K. Shriver, who lost a bid for Congress last fall, will direct U.S. programs for Save the Children, a relief organization.

In September's Democratic primary, Shriver lost to state Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who went on to defeat Rep. Constance A. Morella (R) in the 8th Congressional District, which covers parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

THE DISTRICT

Council Wants Report on Police System The D.C. Council unanimously passed a bill yesterday to require the D.C. police department to submit a report on the effectiveness of its system of police service areas. Members said the bill, which asks Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to submit the report in 90 days, signaled unhappiness with Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey.

The department uses the 83 service areas to organize its patrols, and in recent months, council members have complained that some of the areas are understaffed.

David A. Catania (R-At Large) discussed cutting the pay of Ramsey and Deputy Mayor Margret Nedelkoff Kellems if the report was not turned in on time, but that idea was shelved, members said.

Williams has 10 days to sign or veto the bill, before it becomes law automatically.

Catania Offers Bill to Halt CareFirst Sale D.C. Council member David A. Catania (R-At Large) filed a bill yesterday to prohibit the conversion of the Washington region's nonprofit BlueCross BlueShield insurance company into a for-profit firm. He said the proposed $1.37 billion sale of the firm's parent company, Maryland-based insurance giant CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, would disrupt health care in the District.

Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), chairman of the D.C. Council committee that oversees the city's insurance commissioner, said the bill would interrupt a lengthy process of hearings and review. The council can reverse any regulatory finding.

"We can do it as capriciously as we choose, and I want to avoid that," Ambrose said. "So far, I have been pleased with how careful this has been."

CareFirst spokesman Jeffrey Valentine said the company was disappointed by the bill. "There's nothing to be gained by cutting off discussion of a transaction before you've even had a chance to review its true impact," he said.

VIRGINIA

Fairfax Teams to Aid in Shuttle Search Federal authorities searching for debris from the space shuttle Columbia have called in canine search teams from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.

The two teams from the department's Virginia Task Force 1 urban search and rescue unit left Tuesday to help with the search in Texas and Louisiana. The teams consist of dogs named Otto and Kachi and their handlers, Sonja Heritage and Heidi Yamaguchi.

Members of the Fairfax unit assisted in searches at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack; in Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building; and after natural disasters in Armenia, the Philippines, Turkey and Taiwan.

Pr. William May Cut Property Tax Rate Prince William County officials said yesterday that increased tax revenue will allow budget makers to reduce next year's property tax rate by 4 cents, to $1.19 per $100 of assessed value. But the reduction will be more than offset by a 15.75 percent increase in property values, resulting in an overall increase in the typical homeowner's tax bill.

Unlike Virginia and other jurisdictions going through budget angst, Prince William is projecting an $8.8 million budget surplus in the current year, officials said.

The average assessed value for a residence jumped from $189,946 in 2002 to $219,863, county officials said. Even with the proposed rate reduction, the average tax bill would increase 12 percent, from $2,336 to $2,616. County Finance Director Christopher E. Martino said property values were up all across the county and in all types of housing.

"When looking at assessment increases in the double digits, some [tax] relief is necessary," said County Executive Craig S. Gerhart, who is to propose his county budget for fiscal 2004 on Feb. 25.

THE REGION

Memorial Service for Shuttle Astronauts A memorial service to honor the seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia will be held at 6 p.m. today at Adas Israel Congregation, 2850 Quebec St. NW.

Speakers will include Michael C. Gelman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington; Daniel Ayalon, Israeli ambassador to the United States; Lalit Mansingh, Indian ambassador to the United States; and Andrew Stern, vice president of the Jewish Community Council.

The event is sponsored by the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Council and the Embassy of Israel.

"The proposal is nutty, and obviously, it would not be entertained seriously by any thinking person."

-- Tony Bullock, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, on a proposal by Sandra Seegars of the D.C. Taxicab Commission to allow drivers to carry guns. -- Page B1

Compiled from reports by staff writers Matthew Mosk, David A. Fahrenthold, Avram Goldstein and Eric M. Weiss and the Associated Press.