County Executive James N. Robey's proposal to raise the real estate transfer tax for school construction may be revamped by Howard legislators who clearly are wary of quickly approving a tax increase.
Few lawmakers in the county's 11-member delegation to the Maryland legislature have been willing to sign on to the proposal, which they must support for the measure to move forward and win approval from the General Assembly. The delegation was scheduled to vote yesterday, after Howard Extra was printed, on whether to back Robey's plan to increase the transfer tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the purchase price of a property to raise millions of dollars for school construction. The increase would add an estimated $1,250 in closing costs to the sale of a $250,000 home in Howard.
Even the delegation's chairman, Del. Frank S. Turner (D), one of the few who said he would vote for the measure, acknowledged: "The bill has trouble. If people were enthusiastic supporters of this bill, they would tell you, wouldn't they?"
Under Robey's proposal, the tax increase would generate $10 million, which would support bonds of as much as $215 million for school construction. Officials of the 46,650-student school system, which has grown by about 1,000 students annually for the past several years, want nearly $87 million this coming budget year for new schools and renovations and $112 million the next year.
County Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks, who helped draft the proposal, said the primary appeal of increasing the transfer tax was that revenue could be dedicated solely to school construction. One alternative, raising the county's personal income tax, would be less beneficial for schools if the county was forced to use that revenue to replace state funds in its operating budget.
"We have many other challenges in front of us," Wacks said. "When we look at the options available to us, there are not many."
Lawmakers last week held a four-hour public hearing on the measure. Supporters outnumbered critics, largely from the real estate industry, who said it would unfairly burden home buyers.
"There are many residents in the county that have children in the school system that won't pay one penny of this tax. We are imposing an unfair burden," longtime real estate representative Elaine Northrop said.
She asked: "What happens when real estate values go down? The source of bond money may dry up when the bubble bursts."
Harry L. "Chip" Lundy, a Columbia home builder and president of the Williamsburg Group, said he supported the transfer tax increase because "Jim Robey needs our support now to keep our schools number one in Maryland." He said many families buy homes in Howard because of the school system.
Nevertheless, after the public hearing lawmakers were reluctant to give their blessing to the idea, instead offering critiques of its shortcomings or suggesting alternatives.
None of Howard's three state senators expressed outright support for Robey's proposal. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the lone Democratic senator, said he did not want to publicize his vote before talking to Robey, also a Democrat, but he added, "I would prefer a much broader base as a revenue source than just the transfer tax. Education benefits everyone in Howard County."
Howard's two Republican senators were even less favorable in their assessments. Sandra B. Schrader called it a "regressive tax" that could keep a first-time home buyer out of Howard's already high-priced market.
"I know we have a need [for school construction]," she said. "I'm not convinced this is the right way to do it."
Robert H. Kittleman said the county, whose residents have the highest median household income in Maryland, may be able to issue more general obligation bonds in the coming year and assume more debt for school construction.
"I don't think they have to raise taxes now," he said.
County officials have said 53 percent of new student enrollment comes from families who buy existing homes in Howard. Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D) said that she is not opposed to raising taxes but that she doesn't think county and school officials have adequately demonstrated the point about the origin of new enrollment.
"It doesn't hold water," she said.
Del. Neil F. Quinter (D), saids the local delegation should consider amending Robey's proposal to permit the County Council, rather than the General Assembly, to approve a transfer tax increase, the same way several other county councils in Maryland already can.
"The General Assembly passing a local county tax is a historical anachronism," he said. "It gets to be micromanaging from the state level."
County Council member David A. Rakes (D-East Columbia) said that if the delegation passed such an amendment, "it will be seen for what it is -- not willing to take this on."
Council member Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County) said he has been told by state lawmakers that "they don't have the entire picture of what Robey's proposing in the capital budget. In defense of Jim Robey, it's early in the process for the capital budget."
Merdon considers the transfer tax proposal "an early step in a very long process" and one of several available funding mechanisms.
"The county executive's office just put the idea together and threw it out there," he said. "Howard County doesn't operate that way. It likes to have a cross section of people looking at all the options."