Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Merry Mulch"

That's what HoCo gov calls its Christmas tree recycling effort:
Beginning Saturday, December 26 and continuing through Friday, January 22, Christmas trees may be recycled seven days a week, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the drop-off sites listed below, with the exception of the Alpha Ridge Landfill which is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Kendall Hardware, 12260 Route 108
River Hill Garden Center, 12165 Route 108
Grandfather's Garden Center, 5320 Phelps Luck Drive

Ellicott City:                Circuit Court small parking lot on upper Court House Drive
(just past Ellicott Mills Drive, on the right)
Marriottsville:             Alpha Ridge Landfill Composting Site, 2350 Marriottsville Road
Due to County furloughs, Department of Recreation & Parks’ sites will be closed from Friday, December 25 through Sunday, January 3. Beginning on Monday, January 4, however, Christmas trees may also be recycled seven days a week, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the following park drop-off sites, in addition to the one’s listed above:
Columbia:                  Cedar Lane Park, 5081 Cedar Lane
Elkridge:                     Rockburn Park, 5400 Landing Road
Highland:                    Schooley Mill Park, 12975 Hall Shop Road
Savage:                      Savage Park, 8400 Fair Street

Woodbine:                 Western Regional Park, 14800 Carrs Mill Road

Eastern county residents with yard waste collection services can also set their Christmas trees out on their regular curbside recycling collection days ONLY between December 26 and January 22.  The height limit for trees that may be set along the curb is four feet tall. Trees taller than this must be cut down to four feet to go out at curbside. Each bundle must weigh less than 40 pounds.  All decorations, including lights, plastic  bags and tree stands must be removed. Flocked trees, ones with fake snow sprayed on them or any other  chemical application, may not be recycled. Christmas trees and all other recyclables should be placed out for collection the night before or by 6 a.m. on collection day.

In addition, after January 22 when the sites listed above have stopped accepting Christmas trees and curbside tree collection is no longer an option, residents can still bring their Christmas trees to the Alpha Ridge Landfill, Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Not Done Shopping Yet?

The Mall is finally getting its act together about listing many of the coupons and sales underway for the next few weeks. If you have to go, at least save a couple dollars.

"Free" pretzels, the big semi-annual Yankee Candle sale, 10 percent off this, 30 percent off that. Check out the offers here.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Assessments Fall But We Still Pay More

The Sun, via WaPo, reported that residential property values statewide dropped, on average, by 19.7 percent over the past three years, "reflecting what officials say is the largest decline in the state assessment office's history."

That should be no surprise given what's been happening the broader economy. But Larry Carson's piece reminds us that several years ago HoCo capped the rise in property tax bills annually so we all wouldn't get hit with big assessments increases. The limitation, however, means some bills still have a ways to rise before catching up with the declines. (We know, it's confusing).

In Howard County, for example, if a home doubled in value, the owner pays taxes on only 5 percent of that increase yearly. So even this year's decrease will not produce a tax break. 

"Unless they bought a home in the last two years, they will still see an increase in property tax," said Raymond S. Wacks, Howard's budget director, because the county's cap is suspended for one year on newly purchased homes. That revenue cushion may disappear in another year or two, however, if prices continue to fall, he said. 

The most recent pricing data nationally suggests that prices have leveled off for the time being. On CNBC this morning, we heard one of the hosts say that prices today are pretty close to what they were in 2003....or before than mini-peak,1997.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Furlough Week For Many County Workers

Trash collection is going on as usual, and libraries, courts and the animal shelter are open...but lots of county offices are closed to save money through furloughs.

See who is working and who isn't here.

Makes us think we should come up with some sort of day of thanks for all workers who are having to go without pay in these trying times.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How About A Sidewalk-Shoveling Tracker?

HoCo talks big game about its handy dandy snowplow tracker but what about all the sidewalks that still remain covered? We live in a town that can clear its streets and parking lots within hours of an epic December storm but pity anyone who wants to get around on two feet.

The lack of sidewalks is reason No. 1 why kids have missed three days of school (see pic above).

All these impassible pathways make us wonder whether Columbia can ever truly have a pedestrian-friendly downtown.

Clearly, the county's policy of threatening fines for failing to clear sidewalks is not working. So permit us a modest proposal: Give people an incentive to do the deed. Pay them. Time a compliance check with everyone's recycling pick-up date. If the sidewalks are clear, use that little embedded RFID chip in the blue recycling bins to record the accomplishment. Then, give us a nominal rebate on our trash collection bill.

Hey, it works for BG&E, we just signed up for a fancy new switch to cut our air conditioning use during times of peak energy demand -- all because we get a little money off our electric bill.

We think such a plan might actually get people to shovel more than their driveways, and increase recycling to boot.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Slots! -- And More Slots?

WaPo reports that not only has Anne Arundel approved zoning for a huge slot-machine casino near Arundel Mills Mall but efforts continue to bring more gambling to Laurel Park.

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; B01

Plans to put a slots casino at a Maryland outlet mall moved far closer to reality Monday night when the Anne Arundel County Council approved zoning for the 4,750-machine facility, breaking a stalemate that threatened to sink the project.

With a 4 to 2 vote, the council gave its blessing to the proposed casino at Arundel Mills mall, which would be the largest of five slots sites authorized in Maryland and one of the largest of its kind in the nation.

 Cordish Cos., the project's Baltimore-based developers, must still obtain an array of permits before breaking ground, and several legal and other challenges loom. But zoning approval had emerged as the biggest hurdle for the casino, which Cordish has said could open by December 2011.

The state awarded the company a slots license two weeks ago, contingent on the council's zoning approval. For months, homeowners from neighborhoods around the mall have fought the legislation, voicing concerns about increased traffic and whether a casino would erode the mall's "family-friendly" atmosphere.

But those concerns were trumped Monday by the promise of the revenue that slots could bring to the state and the county.

 "We need this money," council member Tricia L. Johnson (R-Davidsonville) told a packed council chamber as she urged her colleagues to pass "a proposal right in front of us."

Within a few years, the mall casino could generate more than $500 million a year, about half of which would be earmarked for state education programs, according to consultants hired by the state. The county would also get a cut of the proceeds.

The stakes were raised for Monday night's vote when a state panel last week rejected a bid to build Maryland's second-largest proposed casino, a 3,750-machine facility in downtown Baltimore. The right to operate that facility will be rebid, delaying the expected flow of revenue to the state for months, if not years.

 The Anne Arundel site would account for about 40 percent of the total revenue legislative analysts have projected the five slots sites could generate annually. The state is counting on the Baltimore site for about 30 percent of total revenue.

Monday night's victory for Cordish was less than clear-cut to some watching in the chamber.

 Before passing the bill that would allow slots at the mall, the council voted 4 to 2 for a competing zoning bill that would permit slots at several locations in Anne Arundel, including Laurel Park racetrack -- but not at the mall. Just minutes later, however, the second zoning bill passed, giving Cordish the zoning it sought.

Advocates on both sides of the issue said they were certain that Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold (R) would veto the first bill. Leopold, who was unavailable to comment, previously criticized legislation that excluded Cordish.

Surprising vote

The key vote for the mall site came from an unexpected source: council member James Benoit (D-Crownsville), an avowed gambling opponent.

After the first zoning bill passed, Benoit said it would be "futile" to oppose the second on principle because slots were now coming to the county regardless. The bill cutting out Cordish "violates every sense of fair play," said Benoit, whose council district includes the racetrack.

Even before Monday's meeting, a group opposed to slots at the mall vowed to continue fighting the project if the zoning vote did not go its way. The group, Stop Slots at Arundel Mills, said it would launch a petition drive with the hope of delaying -- and later derailing -- the bill's implementation.

Like other Maryland jurisdictions, Anne Arundel allows residents to challenge legislation through a ballot drive, by collecting signatures equal in number to 10 percent of the votes cast in the county in the last gubernatorial election. If the group gathers enough names, Anne Arundel voters would get a say on the zoning bill in November.

"This is not the end but the beginning of the next step," said Rob Annicelli, the group's president.
Last year, a statewide ballot issue authorizing the five slots sites passed with the support of 59 percent of Anne Arundel voters. But anti-slots activists said that most people assumed at the time that slots would go to Laurel Park racetrack, not the mall.

Annicelli said the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel, would assist with the petition-gathering.
Laurel Racing Association, another entity affiliated with the track, has also challenged the state's decision in February to disqualify its bid to host slots. A state panel threw out Laurel's bid because it was not accompanied by a required $28.5 million licensing fee.

The company is appealing to a separate state panel to allow it back in the bidding for the Anne Arundel license. Laurel claims it was unclear whether unsuccessful bidders would have the licensing fee refunded.
Cordish officials have said that a casino at the mall, which draws about 14 million people a year, would be far more lucrative than one at the racetrack. And they say the casino would bring far more to the mall than slot machines.

Plans for the facility, they say, also include a steak house and Asian-themed restaurant. The casino would also have two bars on the gaming floor, an entertainment lounge, a VIP club and a buffet-style restaurant.

Thousands of jobs

Construction and operation of the casino could generate more than 2,300 jobs, according to a consultant hired by the state. Cordish has touted a higher figure -- 4,000 -- and held a job fair last month, dismissing doubts about whether the casino would receive zoning approval.

In countering the anti-slots group, Cordish pointed to a long list of groups that support the casino, including the county's teachers association, chamber of commerce, police officers and firefighters.

Maryland's fledgling slots program has endured a series of setbacks since its launch late last year. Bidding to operate the five sites drew an anemic response in February, which was largely attributed to the economy.
More recently, state officials have learned that the first slots operator to receive a license -- the owner of Ocean Downs racetrack on the Eastern Shore -- has run into problems with asbestos and other construction-related issues and will not open in May as advertised.

A planned casino in Cecil County being built by Penn National Gaming is on track. That facility has secured a state license and local approval, and operators say it will open by late next year.

There were no qualified bids received in February for a fifth Maryland slots license, in Allegany County. State officials are likely to rebid the license.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mall To Stay Open Til Midnight

Here at the Talk house, we have done virtually all our shopping online. But who knows, we may need to make a dash to the mall.

Given the weather, the mall has decided to stay open til midnight on Tuesday and Wednesday.

WBAL TV said General Growth, which runs the mall, said it wants to make up for lost shopping time after last weekend's storm kept many of us homebound.

GGP said most of the merchants in the malls plan to take advantage of the extra hours.

"It was supposed to be the No. 1 weekend for the year, and then we were closed. We're hoping this week that everyone comes out," said store manager Krystina Fowler.

International Car Thieves In Our Midst?

From HoCo police:

Howard County police have charged three men with auto theft of three vehicles, including a Bentley convertible worth $150,000.

Police received a tip on Tuesday that a number of stolen vehicles were being packaged into a container in the county for suspected shipping overseas. The tip led police to Ellis Wise Junkyard in the 12000 block of Hall Shop Road in Clarksville, where police covertly observed three vehicles being loaded into a shipping container. Police confirmed the vehicles were stolen as they maintained surveillance of the site.

Detectives observed a semi-truck loaded with the container leaving the junkyard, followed by a Toyota Echo with two occupants who had been observed loading the vehicles into the container, and initiated a traffic stop of both vehicles.

Based on additional evidence obtained during the traffic stop, police arrested the three men and obtained a search and seizure warrant for the container.

Inside the container were a 2007 Bentley convertible stolen from Florida on Dec. 15, valued at $150,000; a 2008 Toyota Highlander stolen from Washington, D.C., on Dec. 13 in an armed carjacking, valued at $25,000; and a 2005 BMW 330, stolen from another county in Maryland on Dec. 13, valued at $20,000.

Police also discovered the Toyota being driven by the suspects was displaying tags from the BMW 330.

The driver of the semi-truck, Nam V. Nguyen, 51, of Hyattsville, the driver of the Toyota, Edward K. Aboagye, 28, of Laurel, and the passenger of the Toyota, Sean E. Brown, 38, of Douglassville, Ga., were subsequently charged. The men face three theft charges, including theft of $100,000 or more, and three counts of motor vehicle theft.

All three suspects were released from Howard County Detention Center on Wednesday on $7,500 unsecured bonds.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Md's Xmas Present To Drivers

From WaPo:

By Katherine Shaver
Friday, December 18, 2009; A01

A controversial new highway that will connect Montgomery and Prince George's counties will charge the most expensive tolls in the Washington area and some of the highest in the nation when it opens next year.

The board of the Maryland Transportation Authority approved rates Thursday for the Intercounty Connector, an 18.8-mile, six-lane highway designed to ease congestion on some of the most jammed roads in the region.

But the toll road will not pay for itself -- even with rates that will amount to as much as $6.15 each way for drivers traveling the entire length. Revenue from Maryland's seven other toll routes will help subsidize the highway's annual costs.

"The ICC has long been a controversial road, and they just made it more controversial," said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "The question is: Can anyone afford to use it?"

Maryland transportation officials said the ICC rates -- 10 cents to 35 cents a mile, depending on the time of day -- are comparable to those on newer toll roads across the country, including express toll lanes in California with rates of up to a dollar a mile.

The next-most expensive toll in Washington is the Dulles Greenway's peak rate, which amounts to 28.5 cents a mile. Across the country, highway toll rates typically fall between 3 cents and 25 cents a mile, according to AAA.

 Ronald L. Freeland, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, said state studies estimate that 60 percent of ICC motorists will use the highway for about six miles, which would amount to a maximum of $2 each way during off-peak hours and $2.35 each way during rush hours.

 "When you do the math, it's not really that high," he said. "It just looks like it on a per-mile basis."

 The toll plan was approved over the objections of the Montgomery County Council and critics who said the tolls would leave many motorists priced out. The authority said 74 percent of the 380 people who commented on the toll plan said the rates were too high. The Prince George's County Council, which has opposed construction of the ICC, did not take a position on the toll plan.

 The ICC's first 7.2-mile segment, between Interstate 370 in Gaithersburg and Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring, is scheduled to open next fall. The rest of the highway, extending east to Route 1 in Laurel, is scheduled to open by spring 2012.

Drivers will get a price break between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and will be charged a two-mile minimum, according to new elements in the plan that passed unanimously with little discussion. The authority had initially proposed a three-mile minimum, which some Prince George's residents had said would unfairly penalize them because interchanges will be closer together on the highway's eastern end.

Peak tolls of 25 cents to 35 cents a mile will be charged for two-axle vehicles from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Overnight, two-axle vehicles will be charged 10 cents to 30 cents per mile.

Non-peak rates of 20 cents to 30 cents a mile will be charged during all other times outside the new overnight period, officials said. Five-axle trucks will pay up to $2.10 a mile, amounting to $36.85 to travel the entire highway during peak periods.

State officials said the tolls must be high enough to make the highway an attractive, free-flowing alternative to congested roads. The tolls also must bring in maximum revenue to help cover the debt service on $1.2 billion in toll-backed bonds that helped fund the road's $2.56 billion in construction costs.

The state could not have afforded to build the ICC without the toll-backed bonds, an approach that cash-strapped states are increasingly relying on, said Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley.

Financing new highways with toll revenue helps "get the infrastructure we need as quickly as we can," said Swaim-Staley, who chairs the authority's board.

Even the approved tolls will come up short, the authority's Freeland said. Toll collections on the ICC are predicted to reach about $60 million annually during the first five years, he said. During that period, the debt service and operating costs will add up to about $100 million a year.

Freeland said motorists traveling Maryland's toll bridges and tunnels will make up the difference. Maryland has long subsidized construction of new toll facilities by pooling toll revenue statewide, he said.
Montgomery council president Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the council's transportation committee, said that high tolls will discourage people from using the ICC, leaving local roads with the same congestion that the highway is intended to alleviate.

"They gave themselves a range" of tolls, Floreen said. "Let's hope they start at the low end."
The authority made concessions in response to public concerns, such as reducing the overnight fees, officials said. It also agreed to requests to charge motorcycles with sidecars or trailers as two-axle vehicles, even if they have three axles.

Freeland said the agency will set the exact tolls closer to the opening of the first segment. After that, the authority could alter the rates within the approved ranges with 10 days' notice. If the authority wants to change the ranges, it would have to release a new plan for public comment and board approval.

Although the rates would have to be increased if the highway becomes jammed, Freeland said, he does not expect the ICC to reach such congestion levels "for at least 10 years."

The ICC will be the first toll facility in Maryland to collect all revenue electronically using the E-ZPass system. Cash will not be allowed. Motorists without an E-ZPass will be mailed a bill with a $3 surcharge to their vehicle registration address.

Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's The Little Things That Count

This is just a little road project but it is one that should help improve the mess that is the entrance to the Wal-Mart et al. We just wonder who thought this was a good idea to start now, at the height of the holiday shopping season.

A Howard County construction project is currently under way at the intersection of Dobbin Road and Dobbin Center Way, south of Route 175, in Columbia.  The project will include construction of a right turn lane from southbound Dobbin Road onto westbound Dobbin Center Way.  Weather permitting, the project should be completed in May 2010.

During work hours, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., the existing right lane on southbound Dobbin Road may be closed.  Flagging operations will be in place to direct traffic as needed and signs will be posted to advise motorists of the construction. 

For questions or concerns about Capital Project J-4211, contact Lisa Brightwell, Public Works Customer Service, at 410-313-3440 or by e-mail to

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

HoCo Arrests Three For Racist Graffiti

From HoCo PD:

Howard County police have charged three teens for defacing Mt. Hebron High School with racist graffiti, destroying school property and stealing electronics from the school.

Three 15-year-old males from Ellicott City, who all attend the school, are charged with second- and fourth-degree burglary, two counts of malicious destruction of property, 13 counts of theft and defacing school property with hate messages.

One of the teens was arrested Friday. The other two were arrested Monday. Following their arrests, all of the teens were released to their parents.

The vandalism occurred at the school in the 9400 block of Old Frederick Road in Ellicott City on Dec. 5. Police believe the vandals broke a side window in a portable classroom trailer to gain entry. Once inside, the suspects used spray paint to deface school property, depicting swastikas and the letters “KKK.” Police are investigating whether anyone at the school was specifically targeted.

The suspects also stole electronics and damaged computer equipment. During the course of the investigation, police recovered all of the stolen electronics.

In an unrelated case, police are investigating an incident where racist and obscene graffiti was spray painted on the exterior of Hammond Middle School. The vandalism occurred between Friday at 3:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9:25 a.m.

Vandals spray painted the outside of the school building and a trailer with a swastika and a gun firing at a Star of David. The graffiti also included an obscene drawing and the word “Hi” with a smiley face. The school is located in the 8100 block of Aladdin Drive in Laurel.

Police are offering a $300 reward for information leading to the identification of those responsible.

Anyone with information is asked to call 410-313-STOP. Callers may remain anonymous.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Is YouTube Educational?

That was one of the more provocative questions to come up at the HoCo school board's Dec. 10 meeting.

During a discussion on proposed changes to the system's regulations governing the acceptable use of technology, student board member Josh T. Manley asked the administration (about 4 hours 18 minutes into the broadcast) to reconsider its blanket policy of blocking sites such as YouTube.

YouTube, he argued, has educational benefits. He said an advanced placement science teacher once was interested in showing off a video on ground water runoff, but presumably could not. A Spanish teacher wanted to show a video of what other kids did for their class project. Again, it was no permitido.

Manley wondered about a more fluid approach. Perhaps other policies governing student conduct could be used if students access videos that they should not in schools. But some board members seemed wary of easing the restrictions, given all the, ahem, non-educational content that can also be found on the Web.

The board's role in loco parentis means "We have responsibility to protect people from themselves," said school board vice chairman Ellen Flynn Giles. 

At a later point in the discussion, board member Sandra H. French said she worried about all the hate speech that can be accessed on the Internet. The system, she said, needed to do what is necessary to keep such content out of the schools.

Administration officials, meanwhile, said they are looking into ways to continue blocking certain sites while allowing classes to access some specific content, where appropriate.

For now, Manley suggested, some classes are just ignoring the school policy.

For educational reasons, of course.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Look Who's Coming To Ft. Meade

The Annapolis Capital put out a package of stories (overview here, real estate here and schools impact here) on the coming boom at Fort Meade as the base realignment and closure process -- BRAC -- gets underway in earnest next year. The workforce there is projected to grow by 22,000 jobs.

Here's where the people are coming from:

The Defense Information Systems Agency accounts for the largest share of the BRAC jobs with more than 4,200 jobs now in Northern Virginia bound for Fort Meade. Most of them are information technology and communications specialists.

DISA manages the military's computer networks, telecommunication systems and Internet services, making it the civilian equivalent of AT&T Co., Google and America Online.

"With the addition of DISA and NSA in one place, I believe we become the world epicenter for information security technology," Leib said. [That's Bob Leib, special assistant to the Anne Arundel county executive for BRAC.]

When complete, the campus will include 1.1 million square feet of office space built by Colorado-based Hensel Phelps Construction Co. for $442 million. Construction should be finished by September 2010.

Two other organizations, the Defense Media Activity and the Colocation/Adjudication Services, account for the rest of the BRAC jobs.

The DMA is the military's internal communication service. It has thousands of employees all over the globe but only about 663 of them will be relocated to Fort Meade, its new headquarters. Most will come from offices in Northern Virginia while the rest will come from San Antonio.

It's involved in Web, broadcast and print media. For example, it produces Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for service members. It runs a cable channel for soldiers abroad and it coordinates broadcasts of major events, like NFL playoff games, so soldiers in military installations overseas can watch their favorite team.

DMA's offices broke ground in early April and will take about two years and $80 million to complete. The facility will include studios, editing suites and administrative space.

The DMA doesn't expect its staff to move en masse to homes near Fort Meade; many of them already live in Maryland or Northern Virginia, making for a doable commute, said Col. Mike Galloucis, chief of staff for the organization.

He said he expects most of the workforce to decide to keep their job when it moves.

"I think that the only people in this area who will not work at Fort Meade are those individuals who are coming up on retirement eligibility," Col. Galloucis said.

Even civilians working in San Antonio are open to the idea of moving to Maryland and many have planned scouting trips up here, he said.

Adjudication Services is responsible for processing security clearances for military employees. Its 760 workers are the force behind the background checks, polygraphs and other safeguards that try to filter out applicants with shady backgrounds.

It used to be several different organizations with the same mission, but they were all working for different parts of the Department of Defense. Now they are all under one roof and one flag.

Except for a small contingent of workers in Ohio, most are from Northern Virginia. Because it's so close, the move to Fort Meade isn't that big of a deal, said Patricia Stokes, director of security for the organization. "Most of the community that is moving from here is already local. It's anti-climatic," she said.

Construction of Adjudication Services' 152,000-square-foot building began in March and is on track for a 2010 completion.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Things That Make You Go "Huh"

That's what we thought after reading this week's Flier:

* A county judge dismissed several charges against a 23-year-old man accused to firing 21 shots into a crowded Halloween party in Columbia that killed one and paralyzed another.

On Dec. 1, Howard County District Court Judge Pamila Brown dismissed the counts related to the shooting and paralyzing of Nathaniel Quick, 22, of Columbia.

Brown found during a preliminary hearing that no probable cause existed for police to accuse Devon Dixon, 22, of Elkridge, of shooting the bullets that left Quick paralyzed, though the judge found that probable cause did exist for police to accuse Dixon of shooting and killing another partygoer, Aaron Brice, 19, of Silver Spring, according to prosecutors.

The school system is going to provide about 50 Bryant Woods elementary students with bus transportation while CA does repair work on the pedestrian tunnels that go under Twin Rivers Road.

Bryant Woods resident April Wainwright said she thinks the work should have been scheduled for the summer, when schools are not in session.

“To me, that’s much better than risking a child’s life. It’s frightening for me,” said Wainwright, whose daughters, ages 8 and 12, are among the children who use the tunnels to commute to school. “I’m extremely concerned about kids, especially the little ones, crossing Twin Rivers. They’re going to take their chances and just run across.”

* The state is apparently going to mix sugar beet molasses with road salt to treat roads when it snows. The  gooey stuff is supposed to make the salt stick better.

State officials tout Ice Bite as a natural and biodegradable supplement to crews' ice-combating arsenal. Ice Bite is mixed into salt brine tanks so that more of the salt sticks to the road pavement, rather than scattering, when deployed by salt trucks, [State Highway Administration spokesman Charlie] Gischlar said.

The result should make salt application more effective and save money, he said, adding that Ice Bite has been used with positive results in Virginia, Washington, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio and Iowa.

We'd love to hear HowChow's take on that.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Teen Arrested For OM Prank Calls

From HoCo PD:

Howard County police have charged a 15-year-old former student from Oakland Mills High School for making a series of telephone threats to the school using spoofing software. The teen, who lives in Columbia, was arrested Monday. He is charged with making arson threats, telephone misuse, harassment, second degree assault, making a false statement about a destructive device and disturbing school operations. He was released to his parents on Monday.

The incidents date back to Sept. 10, when police believe the teen phoned the Howard County Board of Education on a three-way call with a second suspect on the line. The second suspect left a voicemail message falsely identifying herself as a specific student’s grandmother and stating the student was carrying a gun in school. Police investigated and determined the allegation was untrue. A second call of a similar nature was also made the following day and was again determined to be unsubstantiated.

On Dec. 1, the suspects made another call, this time to Oakland Mills High School, alleging a different student was carrying a gun. As in the first case, a female on the line identified herself as the student’s grandmother. Again, police investigated and determined the allegation was false.

On Dec. 4, the same suspects called Oakland Mills High School and stated there were bombs at the school. The male caller also made threats about shooting the school’s principal. School staff kept the suspects on the phone line, and the school resource officer spoke with them, determining the call was a prank. Based on information the school resource officer obtained while speaking with the suspects, police believed the threat was not credible, and the school was not evacuated.

In all of the incidents, the calls appeared to be coming from a Texas phone line, leading police to believe the calls were made using online spoofing software. Investigators subpoenaed phone records, which led them to the teen suspect. Charges against the female suspect are pending further investigation. Police do not have additional information to release about the female suspect or her relationship to the teen at this time.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Schools Furlough 77 Non-Classroom Staff

From HoCo schools:

Superintendent Sydney Cousin announced today that he will furlough 77 non school-based administrative, management and technical staff for three days this month as a cost-saving measure. The information was shared with most of the employees affected at a 3:00pm meeting on Friday, December 4. The Superintendent indicated furloughs would take place December 29, 30 and 31, 2009, and that the reduction to salaries would be distributed evenly across remaining pay periods this fiscal year.

In making the announcement, Cousin noted that the Howard County Public School System is a part of the larger Howard County community therefore cannot expect to be untouched by current economic realities facing the county. The economic downturn has had a direct impact on county revenues and shortfalls are expected to continue through next year, and perhaps beyond.

"These factors force all of us to face some harsh new realities," Cousin remarked. "Cutbacks and cost-saving measures are being implemented across all county agencies in order to save jobs and hopefully allow for the forward-funding of FY11 needs with savings from the current year's budget."

Cousin said he is grateful to the County for consistently supporting the public school system's budget and, as difficult as it may be, the school system is willing to shoulder a share of the burden in order to preserve the services and amenities we value as a community.

To date, the school system has implemented other cost-saving measures for FY10, which include but are not limited to:

  • Cutting funds for professional meetings and conferences across the budget by 50 percent.
  • Reducing contributions to the system's Workers Compensation Fund by $800,000.
  • Deferring the purchase of 15 replacement cars, trucks and vans for a $417,700 savings.
  • Reducing funds for maintenance of buildings and grounds by a total of $1 million.
  • Continuing the review of all non-school based vacancies and filling only the most critical. To date, nearly a dozen vacated central services positions have been eliminated.
  • Filling teaching vacancies that occur during the school year with long-term substitutes. Other school-based vacancies will be reviewed to determine if they can be put on hold temporarily.
  • Directing account managers to closely review all spending, especially in areas such as travel, and to reduce or eliminate all but the most necessary spending.
Cousin said all cost-cutting decisions are based on his commitment to protect the classroom and direct services to students.

CA's Debt Burden "Manageable"

From CA:

Moody’s Investors Service (Moody’s) reviewed and affirmed the “Aa2” rating on the Columbia Association’s (CA) Senior Secured Bonds. A press release from Moody’s, dated December 1, 2009, lists three primary reasons for its strong rating, including CA’s “suburban center benefits from strategic geographic position” which has been less impacted by the global recession in comparison to other parts of the country; CA’s “financial position anchored by solid coverage of senior secured debt” and supported by comprehensive fiscal planning and steady growth of the assessable base; and “debt burden to remain manageable” with CA’s adherence to debt management guidelines, ongoing assessment growth and aggressive bond repayment.

Moody’s describes their review as “routine surveillance” on the $32 million outstanding Senior Secured Bonds. Moody’s last reviewed CA’s rating in January 2005 when they upgraded it to an “Aa2” from an “Aa3”.

CA’s Senior Secured Bonds are payable from an annual assessment of up to $0.75 per $100 of assessed valuation on all assessable residential; commercial; and industrial land and improvements in Columbia. The adopted annual charge for FY2010 is $0.68, a savings of over 9% to Columbia residents and commercial property owners.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

HoCo Puts Cable TV Providers On The Clock

The HoCo Council unanimously approved legislation Monday night that would give cable television providers 15 days to bury temporary lines or face daily civil fines. The Council approved one amendment -- the 15-day limit refers to "working days."

Cable providers can request an extension, of course, and can be permitted delays if weather is a problem. Crews have to leave written notice of the unburied lines.

The new regulations become effective in 61 days.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Shocker: Cable Line Still Unburied

From Columbia Talk

If the county's proposed legislation on unburied cable television wires was in effect right now, someone would be getting a call from the cable administrator's office. That regulation would give the Verizons and Comcasts of the world 15 days to take action, with the possibility of securing another 15-day extension.

The exposed line behind the Columbia Talk offices -- running through neighborhood backyards -- has now remained unburied for 23 days.

Just sayin'.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Dust-up Over Merriweather

As the Sun reported, all is not well in the relationship with CA and General Growth.

What's up with that?

Apparently the friction stems from what CA folks think is a land grab by GGP. They didn't appreciate General Growth's original vision of putting lots of cultural buildings and such in the middle of Symphony Woods, a prime piece of property owned by CA. By contrast, CA's vision includes a fountain, a snack bar, Merriweather and relatively little else of permanence in the park.

Greg Hamm, GGP's point man for the Columbia project, made it pretty clear during the council's work session earlier this week that GGP's support for Merriweather redevelopment, including whether to eventually turn it over to the community, depends in part on what GGP gets out of it.

"We think Merriweather needs to be alive more than 30 days a year," he said.

If the community is willing to rehab Merriweather, GGP might be willing to increase its effort - i.e. spend more money. He said the stage area is currently too small to accommodate the towers of equipment that many shows now require, and there's insufficient access to the back of the facility for the caravans of tractor trailers that typically accompany larger productions.In addition, the two wings of seating need more permanent cover and other amenities require upgrade.

So improvements and "easements" are essential.

"If Merriweather becomes part of a cultural hub that feeds the rest of the community then it's a lot more valuable to us and we'd be more interested in making it all it can be," Hamm said.

Later, he seemed to reconsider his remarks. "Ultimately," he told the council, "this is the community's land and the community's plan and the community has to buy off on the right thing to do here and we want to be part of that solution."

As the work session went on, one thing became clear: The success of downtown redevelopment depends a lot on CA and GGP getting along. Too many parts of the GGP plan -- whether it is a path, a transit system etc -- need to hook up with CA property and the rest of Columbia.

It was also clear that the two sides have had precious little interaction at this most important phase of deliberations. Who's at fault? We have no idea. But in the end, the greatest plan in the world will not have a ghost of a chance if people cannot cooperate.

Council members urged Hamm to reach out to CA and others.

"It's a two-way street and it has to work both ways," Hamm said.

1,500 Turn Out To Mourn River Hill Student

Hundreds turned out Thursday to pay last respects to Steven Dankos, the 17-year-old River senior who was killed early Sunday in what police have called an alcohol-related fatality, the Sun reported.

A memorial service was held at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Hyattsville, presided over by Father John Dakes.

Dakes, the former pastor at the Prince George's County church where Dankos had attended school through eighth grade before the family moved to Howard County, said that David Erdman [the alleged driver, who has since been charged in the accident] and his family should be forgiven. Dakes said that Nancy Davis had suggested as much during her only public comments since her son's death.

Looking out into a sea of sad and tear-filled eyes, Dakes said the turnout for the teenager was a "legacy of love."

Recalling a story about the wife of a rabbi who had to figure out a way to tell her husband that their two children had been killed, Dakes said the woman concluded that they had been "precious jewels who had to be returned to God." So, too, was Dankos, he said.

Drakes also had a message for Dankos's many friends and classmates, the Sun said.

"Think before acting," Dakes said. "Think before drinking."

Arrest Made In OM Hit-n-Run

From HoCo PD:

Howard County police have arrested a Columbia man for a hit-and-run collision last month where a 16-year-old pedestrian suffered non-life threatening injuries.

Paul Russell White III, 24, of 9483 Cameldriver Court in Columbia, is charged with fleeing the scene of an accident, negligent driving and failure to drive right of enter.

On Nov. 22, police were called to the 9300 block of Farewell Road in Columbia at approximately 12:36 a.m. by a witness to the hit-and-run.

The victim, Devon James Carter, 16, of the 9400 block of Merryrest Road in Columbia, was walking with two friends heading west on Farewell Road in the eastbound lane when a driver traveling westbound at approximately 35 miles per hour crossed the double-yellow line and struck him from behind.

Carter suffered non-life threatening injuries to his head, torso and legs. He was transported to University of Maryland, Shock Trauma, by ambulance.

Witnesses reported that the suspect vehicle made a U-turn to return to the scene and then turned around again to flee.

The suspect vehicle was described as a red, two-door Honda Civic or Accord with dark tinted windows. It was believed to have damage to the bumper, hood and windshield. The vehicle’s tag was believed to include the characters A0Z.

Investigators searched Motor Vehicle Administration databases and located a Honda with Maryland tag 8DZW02 that matched the description provided by witnesses. The vehicle is registered to White, who lives near the accident site. Detectives located the suspect vehicle and observed damage consistent with the hit-and-run.

Based on that information and additional evidence, police filed charges against White.

White is being held at Howard County Detention Center awaiting a bond hearing.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

CA Chairman, GGP Spar

This can't be good. The Sun says tensions flared between Philip Kirsch, who heads the Columbia Association's board, and Gregory F. Hamm, Columbia's general manager for General Growth Properties, after the work session earlier this week on downtown Columbia.

When the verbal fireworks erupted, only the three council members who represent Columbia remained.

"He refuses to return phone calls," Kirsch said to Councilwoman Jen Terrasa as the session broke up. "That's not true," Hamm shot back, noting that he has a meeting scheduled for Monday with Nelson to talk about Symphony Woods. He later said the meeting was set up more than a week earlier.

"That's a false statement," Hamm repeated. "There's a lack of responsiveness in this relationship, but not on our part," Hamm said, as Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, suggested a public spat wasn't helpful. Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, was the third member present.

"They want our land," Kirsch said about GGP. Hamm countered that his firm could use easements or other "minor property line adjustments" to allow General Growth to use CA property to help remake Merriweather. Without cooperation from the CA, he told the council, the pavilion would not be able to expand into a full-time cultural draw and eventually become public property. Instead, it would continue its limited concert venue role under the developer's ownership.

"It's a valuable asset to us now," he told the council members. "We can't go giving things away."

TIF Talk

At the County Council's work session on downtown development earlier this week, the conversation turned to Tax Incremental Financing.

GGP plans to seek TIF financing to help pay for improvements, principally "structured parking" for the new development.

GGP's Greg Hamm, the company's point person on Columbia redevelopment, said that in addition to serving the private offices and residences, "perhaps" the parking could be used for a new public library and "perhaps" it could be used for Merriweather and "other government uses."

"Perhaps" he didn't mean to use "perhaps" so much. After all, if the county approves a TIF it has ownership in the improvements.

Basically a TIF is a kind of financing in which bonds are paid off with a portion of anticipated tax revenue increases. So, for example, you put in a road, the surrounding real estate increases in value, and you use some of that future increase to pay off the debt.

A TIF hives off some of the anticipated tax revenues to downtown, meaning it will not go back to the general county kitty.

Getting a TIF right is important because, presumably, the county would like to keep as much future revenue unencumbered as possible, but still pay for improvements that will be needed.

So what's the right number?

No one has figured that out. We can't know what a TIF might do to revenues because we don't know yet what the final plan will be -- it is a chicken and egg dilemma, the council was told.

Except we do know what GGP proposed, but hey, why use that as a basis?

Hamm said there are many other ways to "skin the cat," and finance downtown improvements, including possible federal funds for smart growth or just using regular government general obligation bonds.

Beyond the TIF, Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty asked Hamm to explain exactly what GGP would pay for.

Hamm said the company was paying for an environmental assessment of the area and GGP would put in $7 million to match CA and public funds for fixing up the Symphony Woods watershed. GGP and the builders it works with would effectively pay for higher design standards.

The company would pay for transportation feasibility studies, including interchange and transit options, and promote transit initiatives.

GGP would also contribute an unspecified sum to security and open space maintenance in the area. It would work with the county to identify possible locations for new police and fire stations -- possibly contributing funds depending on discussions with the county.

Hamm said the company pledged to also work with CA and other groups on creating a better linkage between east and west Columbia, even leaving open the possibility of a bridge between downtown and Oakland Mills.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

HoCo Aces The AP

According to this report from WTOP, Maryland students placed first nationally on the College Board's Advanced Placement test performance in 2008.

In Howard County, 83 percent of all exams taken by 3,758 public school students received a score of at least a three [on a four-point scale] in 2009. Twenty-three percent of all high school students in the county completed AP exams, up 4 percent in as many years.

In Montgomery County, 72.3 percent of AP exams taken by more than 28,000 students received a passing grade this year. The number of students taking AP exams in the county increased by 10 percent since last year.

Students in Baltimore County took more than 9,000 exams in 2009, of which 68.4 percent received at least a three. The number of tests taken increased by about 1,000 from 2008.

All three counties had a passing percentage higher than reported state averages.

A score of three is good enough to get course credit at many universities.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

General Growth Nears End of Bankruptcy

The company could exit bankruptcy protection by the end of the year.

From General Growth:

CHICAGO, December 2, 2009 — GENERAL GROWTH PROPERTIES, INC. ("GGP") today announced the filing of the plan of reorganization and related disclosure statement with the Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York for the 92 regional shopping centers, office properties, community centers and related subsidiaries associated with approximately $9.7 billion of secured mortgage loans. This amount exceeds the previously announced agreements in principal to restructure $8.9 billion of mortgage loans, as GGP has reached additional consensual agreements in principal with certain secured mortgage lenders since the prior announcement on November 19, 2009.

Confirmation of the plan of reorganization is currently scheduled for December 15, 2009. The plan of reorganization provides that all undisputed claims against the emerging debtors for pre-petition goods and services will be paid in full. Effectiveness of the plan of reorganization and emergence from bankruptcy for the debtors associated with these secured mortgage loans are subject to various conditions and approvals, including completion of definitive documentation and approval of the Bankruptcy Court. In addition, certain of the agreements remain subject to the approval of the Class B note holders or mezzanine holders. If these conditions are satisfied and such approvals are obtained, the regional shopping centers, office properties, community centers and other subsidiaries associated with these secured mortgage loans will emerge from bankruptcy prior to the end of 2009.

“We are extremely pleased to take this important step of filing the plan of reorganization for these debtors,” said Thomas H. Nolan, Jr., president and chief operating officer of GGP. “Our successful completion of agreements in principal with additional mortgage lenders shows our continued progress. We will continue to work with our other secured mortgage lenders and are hopeful that we will reach additional consensual agreements quickly.”

WMJO Radio

We just made up those call letters, but they might describe HoCoMojo's very fledgling efforts at getting some Internet-style talk radio programming off the ground.

We enjoyed this episode of Mike Morucci's podcast, about the old Mall in Columbia jingle. "The Mall in Columbia. The Mall in Columbia..." Someone somewhere must have the original recording.

There's also "And Then There's That," an informal talk show on county news and such taped at the Lakeside Cafe.

It's not the deepest content, but we're hoping to see/hear more in the future.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

You Are What You Eat

HoCo schools have teamed up with (registration required) to display the daily menus for each school, along with relevant nutritional information.

Today's Western ribs on seeded bun? 489 calories and 1798 mg. sodium, we learned.

The chicken nuggets? 248 calories and another 90 calories for the potato dinner roll (does that count as a vegetable?).

The fruit and veggie of the month? Apples and sweet potatoes.

Here's what Food and Nutrition Services Director Mary Klatko had to say in the school system's e-newsletter: is a fun, colorful site that includes features like nutrition and fitness messages, exercise tips, allergen information, a kids' area with food-related activities, coupons for parents to print and use, frequently asked questions, as well as meal prices, pre-paid meal plans and the local weather.

"It is a very informative site," says Klatko. "We hope the school communities in Howard County will find it useful and interesting."

The site can be accessed at or by visiting the HCPSS website, clicking on "Lunch Menus" in the quick links area, where a link to the schoolmenu site is highlighted.

We had to smile at the coupons featured on the site, for Bagel Bites, Pillsbury rolls and Ghirardelli chocolate. But dig a little deeper and you will find offers for vitamins, soups and other more nutritional deals.