State officials insist there isn't a staffing crisis in local social services agencies across Maryland, but one Howard County official is skeptical.

Melody Higgins, chairman of the citizens advisory board for the Howard Department of Social Services, said state officials have been reluctant to allow the department to hire five new caseworkers, even though the local agency intends to use county money.

"People in child protective services are absolutely stretched to the limit," Higgins said. Money has been approved to hire three child welfare workers for Howard later this month, said Norris West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources. He said that the county can always ask for other positions but that further hiring would be considered an expansion of the local department, not simply filling vacant positions.

"It sounds to me like double talk," Higgins said. "There would be no need to ask for new positions if they had not eliminated them."

Meanwhile, Samuel W. Marshall, Howard's longtime social services director, is retiring at the end of July, capping a 40-year career.

"There's never a good time to go," said Marshall, who said he has seen his workforce shrink from 160 to 115 since the state freeze was imposed in 2001.

As director of the county's department for the past 30 years, Marshall 61, has overseen a staff that helps people with low-income programs, elderly assistance and child protective services.

"There were times when I went home a little more tired, a little more depressed, but if I felt burnt out, I would have left," Marshall said. "I get a lot of satisfaction out of what I do. I think I've had an impact on folks, some of whom I've never seen."

Getting accustomed to retirement, however, might not be that difficult, he said. "I like the whole idea that I don't have to do anything."

Groundbreaking at Last

Valerie E. Lash knows how to dress for a summer groundbreaking, and it isn't in a frilly frock. The chairman of Howard Community College's Arts and Humanities Division came to the speaker's lectern wearing a hard hat and a tool belt that had a violin and ballet slippers attached.

"I can't believe this day is actually here," Lash said to a crowd of about 200 gathered Tuesday to celebrate the college's groundbreaking for the long-planned $20 million Visual and Performing Arts Instructional Building, scheduled to open in 2006.

The complex, which will spread out on each side of the existing Smith Theatre, will feature studios, music practice rooms, multimedia labs, art galleries and photography facilities for a division where student enrollment has grown 79 percent in four years.

Those students have been taught in trailers and converted classrooms, Lash said. "We've made do."

HCC President Mary Ellen Duncan, who has led the college in its ambitious expansion over the past five years, demonstrated how she seizes every opportunity to do a little fundraising. The college is seeking $5 million in private money to help pay for the building, and Duncan urged the crowd, which included major donors, to dig deep so that "we can be finished with this."

After all, HCC officials have started planning the new student services building.

North Laurel Markers

Local politicians and business officials this week unveiled a North Laurel gateway sign, the first of four landscaped stone markers along the county's 11-mile stretch of Route 1.

In addition, officials with Citizens National Bank of Laurel announced they are putting $25 million into a low-interest loan program through 2005 to finance commercial development projects along the aging commercial corridor. The bank already has committed just under $14 million in a similar loan program with below-prime interest rates that it offered in 2002 and 2003.

"It's important for us to be involved," said Michael Russo, a senior vice president with the bank. "It's our home and where we do business."

In addition to the gateway signs, $1 million in federal funding has been earmarked for other improvements, such as new sidewalks, trees and crosswalks.

"A little tiny bit by a little tiny bit, we will be making some changes," said Elmina Hilsenrath, chief of the county's Division of Environmental and Community Planning.