Building Schools At Risk

State Budget Deficit May Hit Construction

September 25, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

County schools, which have enjoyed steadfast financing for school construction over the last six years, could face delays in building because of state and county economic crunches.

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey proposed yesterday a $40.7 million 1993 capital budget, which includes building a middle school and elementary school toopen in summer 1993 and a high school and elementary school to open in summer 1994. The plan depends on $21.4 million from the county and$16 million from the state.

But concern over capital projects is being fueled by Gov. WilliamDonald Schaefer's warning in an Aug. 30 letter to the state agency that coordinates school construction that it may have no money to givelocal jurisdictions for fiscal 1993 because of state budget problems.

The same troubles afflicting the state's ability to raise money may make it harder for the county to fill possible gaps in state financing, county budget administrator Raymond S. Wacks said.

"My gut feeling is that with the recession being what it is and likelihood ofslower revenue growth over the next few years, it's likely that the county's ability to issue new debt will be more limited than it has in the past," he said.

The construction money comes primarily from the sale of bonds and not directly from tax revenue.

Wacks said that during the next few months the county will study how much new debtit can afford. The amount of bond sales for the projects won't be decided until the end of the year.

"We have to make choices. County bonding could pick up the slack, but it would mean taking away from roads or other projects," Wacks said.

But Hickey said he doesn't agree with such dire predictions.

"I don't think the state is going to pull out of the school funding. I think they're going to fund it in the $60 million range like they did last year," he said.

In 1998, all eight county high schools, 11 of 12 middle schools and 19 of 29elementary schools will have more students than they were designed for if no schools are constructed, school officials say.

The 1993 request includes $806,000 for a new Western Middle school, whose site has not yet been determined, and $542,000 for a new Northeastern Elementary School near Elkridge. Both schools are scheduled to open in August 1993.

It also asks for $7 million toward construction of Northern Elementary School, whose site also is undetermined, and $22.2 million for a Western High School next to Columbia Memorial Park at Route 108 and Trotter Road.

The only item on the budget not included on last year's five-year spending plan is $114,000 for a four-classroom "pod" addition to Longfellow Elementary school.

Hickey said thegovernor's warning may be "a hedge against an uncertain political picture, perhaps," and noted comments from legislators speculating thatthe governor might be trying to rally support for a tax increase.

One source of construction money comes from transfer taxes, which are levied against home purchases.

That revenue, estimated by the county to provide $3.4 million for the current $31.3 million fiscal 1992 capital budget, are actually falling about 20 percent short of whatthey were at this time last year, Hickey said.

Hickey said his proposed 10-year capital improvement program, which was submitted with the fiscal 1993 budget, takes into account possible declines in financing by spacing out expensive years.

The most expensive fiscal year, 1995, calls for $42.3 million, he said. It is offset by $9.6 million in 1997.

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