Friday, November 30, 2007

More Charges In High School Brawl

From today's WaPo:

By Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

A second young man accused of participating in a February brawl that left an 18-year-old dead outside a high school in Ellicott City has been charged with assault, the Howard County state's attorney's office said yesterday.

Corey M. Lehnhoff, 18, is alleged to have assaulted two people with an aluminum baseball bat and punched another person during the late-night fight outside Mount Hebron High School.

Lehnhoff, who, according to his attorney, was a friend of the teen who died, appeared to be an instigator of the brawl, charging documents state.

The fight involved about 20 young men, most connected to Mount Hebron or Hammond High School in Columbia. Robert Brazell Jr. of Ellicott City was fatally injured when he was struck in the head with an aluminum bat.

Kevin F. Klink, who graduated last year from Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, was charged with murder. His case is scheduled for trial in February.

Lehnhoff, of Ellicott City, and Brazell "were close friends, best friends" and had been students at Mount Hebron, said Lehnhoff's attorney, Joe Murtha.

"Now the focus has gone from Kevin Klink for being responsible and an aggressor to the people who may have been with Robby Brazell that evening," Murtha said.

Lehnhoff was indicted Wednesday and charged with two counts of first-degree assault, two counts of carrying a dangerous weapon and other counts, said Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office.

Before the fight started, Lehnhoff, "out in front of a group of males, ripped off his shirt, approached an opposing male and began arguing. This act began the brawl that consisted of about twenty males," the charging documents state.

One witness said that Lehnhoff was "the biggest fight participant" in one of the groups and that Lehnhoff and Brazell "were standing in the front of the group of males that made up the opposing group," according to the documents.

Lehnhoff, who was 17 when the incident occurred, was charged as an adult.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

College Angst

Here at Talk central, we find ourselves obsessing over college these days. Ma Talk is in the final stretch of her masters, the Talk kids are beginning to assess their choices, and Pa Talk still has this recurring nightmare where he is sitting all over again for the big Calculus III test with absolutely no idea about how answer the questions.

So this story in the Sun caught our eye. It seems today's ambitious teen spends many late nights and weekends completing as many as 12 applications or more with the help of "lots of coffee."


Technology is part to blame. Many colleges allow people to apply online and they use a common form. We even heard a Podcast lately touting the benefits of the "social media" application, one where you add links to your Web pages and sports highlight reels on YouTube. (But don't forget to scrub the MySpace page!)

For Pa Talk, that's enough to spur some more nightmares....

But there is at least one college trend we believe can't come fast enough. Check out this story in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

"Colleges are moving to eliminate -- or at least ease -- student debt as pressure builds in Washington for them to spend more from their endowments to help families afford the rising cost of school.

"This month, Williams College announced that it will eliminate loans from all financial-aid packages beginning next school year and replace them with grants. Amherst College recently announced a similar initiative. And Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., began this fall replacing loans with grants and student employment.

"Other schools are stopping short of getting rid of loans entirely, but are still finding new ways to minimize debt, at least for some students. Colby College, a private college in Waterville, Maine, announced this month that it will eliminate loans for Maine residents starting next fall. Beginning with next year's freshmen, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., will eliminate loans for its neediest undergraduates and reduce debt by an average of 35% for all other students on aid.

"And this year, Emory University in Atlanta announced its 'Emory Advantage' program, which eliminates loans for undergraduate students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year, while capping total loan volume at $15,000 over four years for families with income of up to $100,000."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Triple-A County

Wanna know what Wall Street thinks about Howard County? One of the major bond rating services, Fitch, rates HoCo's latest bond offer AAA. Fitch is like Standard & Poor's or Moody's. A higher rating means the county can borrow money cheaper.

Here's its analysis:

"The 'AAA' rating reflects Howard County's deep and diverse economy, strong financial management, affluent residents and a moderate and rapidly retired debt burden. The county's financial position is strong, with ample liquidity, sound general fund reserves above the charter-mandated level, and excellent financial planning. Current and projected tax-supported debt levels are affordable.

"Howard County's relative affluence, high quality of life, excellent schools, and proximity to both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. have resulted in continued strong demand for housing and related commercial expansion. Repeatedly listed as one of the best places to live in popular magazines, the county controls its growth, limiting new housing units to 1,850 annually and placing 10% of its land under permanent farmland preservation easements. Further growth is anticipated as recent Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) recommendations will bring the Defense Information Systems Agency and other Defense departments' activities to Ft. Meade, in adjacent Anne Arundel County. Assessed valuation growth has been solid, averaging 10.0% annually since fiscal 2000; Fitch anticipates that the county's assessment process will shelter it, at least in part, from market declines over the next few fiscal years. Residential employment remains strong, with the September 2007 unemployment rate of 2.7% comfortably below the state's 3.6% and the nation's 4.7%. Wealth and income indicators are high, with per capita personal income 25% above state and 53% above national averages.

"Financial operations are stable after a difficult recessionary period, during which the loss of capital gains and bonus income severely eroded income tax collections. Strong financial management increased the fiscal 2007 unreserved general fund balance to $67.3 million, representing a high 9.2% of spending, from a negligible $307,500, or 0.1% of spending, in fiscal 2003. The county has restored the general fund charter reserve to 7% of the prior year's audited expenditures and is increasing its pay-as-you-go funding for capital needs. In fiscal 2007, the county designated $15 million of its fund balance to fund its obligations for healthcare and other post-employment benefits."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Poinsettia Tree Is No More

We missed the real news about the Santastic display at the mall. It replaced the traditional poinsettia tree that's been a staple of holidays past for more than 30 years, according to this story in the Flier.

The mall folks apparently donated the wire frame to the symphony of lights for its outdoor display, sans plants of course.

Which doesn't seem quite the same somehow.

Anyway, the mall's move made history, according to this e-mail from the folks in town center.

"History is all around us – even in what we call a new town. Columbia Archives Manager Barbara Kellner will share the story of some historic treasures in a slide show tour on Tuesday, December 11 at 7pm at Historic Oakland in Columbia.

"The program will highlight Columbia’s ties to its agrarian past and the world of horse racing. It will also include some of Columbia’s more recent history including the recent demise of a long-time Columbian tradition, the Poinsettia Tree at the Mall in Columbia.

"The program is free, but registration is encouraged. For more information and to register, please contact Barbara Kellner at or call 410.715.3103. Historic Oakland is located at 5430 Vantage Point Road in Columbia."

Friday, November 23, 2007

Synthetic Space

Howard County plans to use state open space money to cover some of its ballfields in artificial turf, at more than $500,000 a pop, according to this story in WaPo.

The first fields to get the plastic stuff are out in the Western Regional Park.

Folks around here seem cool with the idea. There's already plenty of synthetic fields over at SAC's soccer park. But WaPo says "artificial-turf fields have stirred opposition recently in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts, where activists say the rubber pellets might release harmful chemicals into the air or rainwater.

"The turf industry has responded that its products are safe and that they help the environment by reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizer."

Gary Arthur of the Recreation and Parks Department told WaPo that the county's old grass fields were routinely spoiled by overuse.

"We quickly found out, as the population increased and participation increased," Arthur said, "that we weren't able to keep natural turf on the field, and it became basically dirt." That led to puddles, divots and, inevitably, to crazy bounces and sprained ankles.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Tax Package Comes Home

WaPo says in this story that residents "who buy new cars, smoke cigarettes and get their computers fixed will be among the hardest hit" by the tax package approved by the General Assembly this week.

Computers fixed?

"The lion's share of new revenue is generated by the state sales tax, which will increase from 5 percent to 6 percent. The sales tax will be applied to computer services, which are now exempt, a move estimated to raise about $214 million."

A 6 percent sales tax means Amazon and other online retailers just got cheaper.

The tax on your smokes will go up from $1 per pack to $2. The corporate income tax will climb from 7 percent to 8.25 percent. The titling tax on your car will go from 5 percent to 6 percent.

Income taxes will go up for the wealthier among us. Currently, everyone pays a flat 4.75 percent rate on income above $3,000. Under the new plan, single filers reporting more than $150,000 income and joint filers reporting more than $200,000 in income will be taxed at progressively higher rates.

After all the revenue adjustments, Howard will see state aid grow by $6.6 million to $273.3 million in fiscal 2009, according to a chart in WaPo. But all you will hear is complaints that we are "losing" $8.8 million that we had hoped to get on top of that.

This from the Sun: "The final General Assembly votes left another $550 million in cuts for O'Malley to make in the fiscal 2009 budget that he is to propose in January, which also concerns local officials.

'We think the cuts are about $9 million or $10 million, but that's before the governor spells out the $550 million. I'm assuming some portion of that will come from counties,' said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Eraser Man

This brought a smile to the globally minded team at Columbia Talk:

Columbia's WR Grace got a little cultural lesson when it tried to introduce Eraser Man to China, according to this story in the trade Industry Week.

"Eraser Man seemed like a harmless gimmick to promote lean manufacturing throughout the global operations of Columbia, Md.-based W.R. Grace & Co. The pink eraser mascot was supposed to convey a simple message: eradicate or 'erase' waste. But when the $2.8 billion specialty chemicals manufacturer introduced Eraser Man during a focus-group session in China, the company's Asian staff was perplexed and perhaps a little miffed. That's because in China, erase actually means invisible.

" 'They said, "Do you really want this program to be invisible?" '" recalls Michael Piergrossi, W.R. Grace's vice president of human resources. 'Of course, the answer is, "no."'

"Also at issue was the color pink. 'Pink is just not an acceptable color in China; it's feminine. No self-respecting man would want to be associated with a program that's marked by the color pink,' Piergrossi explains."

All is well now. Eraser Man is now tan and employees in China are asked to "simplify" or "reduce" rather than erase, the magazine said.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Scary Santa

Here at Columbia Talk, our favorite photo of our visit with the shopping mall Santa is young Talk's absolutely terrified look while spending time on Kris's lap. Sooo cute! Of course, at the time, his parents were not so pleased. They wanted the happy lad to pour out his hopes and dreams and revel in the wonderment of Christmas, all to be captured for the grandparents by the elves' cameras.

Ah, those were simple times.

Now, we have Santastic. Starting today, you just don't visit Santa at the mall, you walk through peppermint-scented falling snow, mail your letter to the North Pole, and try your luck on the Naughty or Nice meter, all before getting your chance to meet the big guy.

Wow. Now that's scary.

The mall parade to kick off the season starts at 5p tonight and Mr. Claus arrives around 5:30p, according to the schedule posted on the Web site. (Find the rest of the schedule here (pdf))

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Calling Columbia Vets

We say this note in the Examiner:

The Howard County Library is seeking veterans to interview for its This Is Your Life project, a countywide initiative that encourages residents 50 and older to record their personal histories.

The Columbia Archives will preserve the interviews in its permanent collection.

Veterans interested in participating should check out this link.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Will The Tower Ever Be Built?

The developer, WCI Communities, tells the Sun yes, but the company recently reported a quarterly loss of nearly $70 million (compared to an $11 million profit a year earlier) and the chief executive says ominously in this SEC filing that during the quarter "we experienced higher tower defaults and increased our reserves for future tower defaults."

The company has already laid off more than 575 employees as part of a company-wide belt-tightening, and it considered whether to sell itself. In this filing, the company says it is in discussions with its lenders and could lose financing under certain credit agreements because of deteriorating conditions in the housing market.

Here's some excerpts:

"The most significant impact to our third quarter operations occurred in our tower homebuilding division which experienced a $209.1 million and $87.7 million decline in revenues and gross margin, respectively. Tower defaults in certain of our buildings that began delivering units in 2007 have been higher than our average default rate experienced prior to 2007. The tower unit default rate was approximately 1%-2% prior to 2006, 7% during 2006 and 26% for the nine months ended September 30, 2007."

"The continuing deterioration of conditions in the markets in which we operate has had, and will likely continue to have for an extended period of time, a negative impact on our liquidity and our ability to comply with financial and other covenants under our bank loans and indentures. Some of the factors which have adversely affected us include, but are not limited to, declines in new home orders; significant increase in cancellations, defaults and rescission claims and lawsuits; increased use of incentives and discounts; reduced margins; significant tower project delays and increased interest and insurance costs; general contractor financial instability; and credit rating downgrades. All of these factors, and others which may arise in the future, have adversely impacted, and will likely continue to adversely impact our financial condition."

"With little or no visibility as to when market conditions are likely to improve, we have been taking steps to reduce costs to partially offset variances caused by the current unfavorable business environment. We are continuing to reduce overhead, improving operating efficiency, and implementing practices to reduce construction costs. The Company announced a restructuring of its operations to combine the traditional homebuilding and tower operations to enhance efficiencies. In addition, we have reduced land purchases and development activities. All of these measures are focused on maximizing cash flow and paying down debt. Although no assurance can be given, we expect to realize approximately $200-$450 million of cash flow from operating activities and approximately $10 million of cash flow from investing activities in 2007, generated primarily from the collection of tower receivables and proceeds from traditional home closings, land and recreational amenity sales."

"If conditions in the homebuilding industry worsen in the future, we may be required to evaluate additional homes and communities which may result in additional impairment charges and such charges could be significant."


It's no secret that developers of all stripes are rethinking their plans because of the current turmoil in the mortgage and broader credit markets.If WCI completes it Plaza Residences in downtown Columbia, it will be threading a needle.

Here's the full text of CEO Jerry Starkey's statement:

“Demand continues to be unpredictable from week to week and we saw an increase in defaults and cancellations during the third quarter. We are focused on reducing our costs of operation and recently announced a restructuring that we expect will enable us to lower our annual salary and benefit expenses by about $46 million. As a part of this restructuring, we have combined geographic regions and retained the top talent capable of taking on expanded roles and responsibility during this downturn. During the quarter, we experienced higher tower defaults and increased our reserves for future tower defaults. This resulted in revenue and earnings reversals and had a negative impact on our financial performance during the period. We also wrote down our traditional and tower inventory to reflect impairments caused by expected lower prices and slower absorption in some product lines. While lower demand and increased defaults have severely hampered our earnings, we continue to expect significant cash flow in the fourth quarter to result in about $210 million to $460 million of cash flow for the full year ($200 million to $450 million from operating activities and $10 million from investing activities). The Company’s expected cash flow from operations includes 275 to 300 traditional homes closings in the fourth quarter. The backlog of 591 traditional homes as of September 30, 2007 includes 273 homes scheduled to close by year end.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

River Hill Traffic Alert

From the folks at the River Hill village center....

A County water and sewer construction project will affect a 200-foot length of Trotter Road immediately north of the roundabout at Southwind Circle in Columbia and Clarksville beginning on or about Monday, November 26. The area will be temporarily closed to traffic during the hours of 9:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. during construction. Weather permitting the project should be completed within six calendar days.

Suggested detours will include Maryland Route 108 and Great Star Drive. Signs will be posted to advise motorists of the construction and alternate routes.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Nature Stories

Two stories caught our eye this weekend.

One was by WaPo outdoors writer Angus Phillips on the hunter who bagged two deer during the managed hunt at the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area near Clarksville. The hunter happened across the buck of a lifetime and a nervous doe, but under the rules of engagement, had to shoot the doe first (for population control reasons).

"Sure enough, the buck ran away, but, 'I thought he might come back, so I stayed real still,' " the hunter told Phillips. " 'Sure enough, he went off about 80 yards, then five minutes later he came back. I guess he was just so infatuated with her, he couldn't believe it was over.' "

Poor lovestruck devil.

The other was a Sun piece about the discovery on a West Friendship farm of what it believed to be the largest big-leaf magnolia in the nation.

"Although not especially tall, the tree is notable for its huge leaves and flowers. The soft green leaves might be up to 30 inches long, while the aromatic white flowers might be a foot wide," the Sun say.

The Magnolia macrophylla's "measurements are being sent to American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization that catalogs the largest specimens of 826 species of native and naturalized trees in the country, which will determine the national champions, said American Forests Executive Director Deborah Gangloff.

"The Washington, D.C.-based group has been documenting big trees since 1940, when it adopted a program originally developed by Fred W. Besley, Maryland's state forester from 1906 to 1942."

The Sun's keeping the tree's location secret at the request of the landowners.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Talk TV: And Now For Sports....

There's a new sports team in town...say hello to DigitalSports Inc., a Columbia firm that is trying to provide an online home for coverage of high school and club sports. Think MySpace blended with local TV for the athletic set.

This is an increasingly competitive business around the Washington area, and the country, and no one has really won over the HoCo market yet. Even WaPo is trying to get in on the act. Here's an example of what the newspaper is doing in Loudoun.

The DigitalSports guys say they want to provide big-time coverage of local games while allowing users to post their own blogs and video clips and creating some revenue-sharing opportunities for teams.

Here's a link from DigitalSports to get a flavor.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Flu Shots on TV

We're trying something new here. WJZ-13 lets you embed its video in your site...Bear with the commercial at the start, its short..

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Rest In Peace Doc

At WaPo, we've started a new feature in our Post Mortem blog called the Daily Goodbye, a roundup of notable obituaries around the country.

Here's our Columbia contribution for the day, courtesy of the Sun.

Leslie S. "Doc" Feldman, a pharmacist who once owned drugstores in Long Reach and Dorsey's Search, died of cancer Oct. 31 at his Columbia home, according to this obit. He was 63.

After graduating from Temple University, he "moved to Maryland, where he worked for several pharmacies before opening Long Reach Village Pharmacy in Columbia in 1974. He owned and operated Feldman's Medical Center Pharmacy and Feldman's Dorsey Hall Pharmacy, both in Columbia, and Feldman's Pharmacy in Ellicott City.

"Mr. Feldman stopped working last year because of illness; he had just completed the sale of his drugstores last week.

"That was what he was waiting for," said his wife of 41 years, the former Stefanie Dan."

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Grocery Game Of Chicken

We're on food overload here at Columbia Talk. We're newly minted Costco members, and made our first foray to Trader Joe's. We're trying to stay loyal to our neighborhood Food Lion and still have a hankering for the produce at Produce Galore and MOM's. Then there's David's Natural Market, a rebate check to cash from BJ's, dog treats to pick up at Target and Wal-Mart, and our monthly visit to Lets Dish.

And Wegmans is not even here yet!

Something has got to give. But it made us wonder: Why is a low-margin, fiercely competitive business like the grocery business suddenly so hot? Perhaps the chains are learning something from Perdues of the world. People will pay you more for the parts they want than they will for the whole chicken. Specialize in a segment of the market, say organics or bulk products, and you can steal part of a mainstream grocer's most profitable customers.

At least until we all get too tired of hitting five different stores for the food -- and prices -- we want.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Speeders On Camera

Former HoCo exec and police chief, Jim Robey, is now a state senator. His latest legislative initiative (pdf): He wants to give the county the right to install cameras to catch speeders. If your pic is snapped, you'll be mailed a $75 ticket. The proposed law doesn't spell out how fast is too fast, but the ticket will be treated like a parking ticket and drivers will not be assessed any points.

If you can prove you weren't driving, then you can get out of the ticket but you'll have to rat out who was behind the wheel.

Montgomery already has such cameras and assesses a $45 ticket.

Proceeds are earmarked exclusively for public safety programs.

"A similar, statewide speed-camera bill passed legislative muster in 2003, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.," according to this story in the Sun.

The proposal is just one of several the local delegation is going to take up as it prepares for next year's session of the General Assembly.

"The delegation has scheduled a hearing for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29 in the County Council's chambers in Ellicott City to hear from the public on the bills," the Sun says. They are available for viewing here.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Judging The Judges II

The Flier has come to the rescue. In our afternoon paper we found a story about who these candidates are for circuit court judge. There's a brief recitation of the four applicants' careers and short, short interviews with all but Ricardo Daniel Zwaig, who apparently could not be reached for comment....

Zwaig practices law in Ellicott City somewhere, anyone know him? Perhaps we could fill out the record some.

Also, we see the Sun had a story this morning to at least get the names on record. But really we see more coverage of Columbia council members and school board types than members of the judiciary. The four candidates are seeking to replace Dennis Sweeney, who is retiring.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Judging The Judges

Not just anyone can be a judge. You have to be screened by a nominating commission. Here's a link to a state site explaining the process, and a list of the contenders for a circuit court post being vacated by His Honor Dennis Sweeney, who is retiring after 16 years on the bench.

The judicial branch is one of the least covered branches of government -- the focus is usually on the accused or the prosecutors or the victims. A story in the Examiner is a good example. It focuses on the process but says precious little about the four applicants who are still in the running for what will be a 15-year appointment by the governor. They include two prosecutors (HoCo State's Attorney Timothy McCrone and senior assistant state's attorney Mary Murphy), a chancery judge in juvenile court (Marlys Elaine Patrick), and an attorney with a firm specializing in criminal defense work (Ricardo Zwaig).

An October story in the Flier spent more time on the background of the retiring judge than on the people who could soon be making life-changing rulings, but at least the paper is trying to stir some interest.