Executive plans to cap projects at $25 million Yearly bond limit threatens cuts for new schools, roads

'It's always worse'

Even with cutbacks, higher taxes or fees likely will be needed

January 24, 1996|By Howard Libit and Dan Morse | Howard Libit and Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has decided to limit debt for new capital projects to no more than $25 million a year for the next three years -- a cut that jeopardizes a vast array of planned construction of schools, roads and parks.

"I'm concerned about the next generation," Mr. Ecker said yesterday. "Our debt is very severe."

The county executive sent a letter last week to Howard County School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey informing him of the decision to more strictly limit new county bonds.

In turn, Dr. Hickey and county school board members warned this week that the reduced ceiling could cancel or delay some new school construction and additions to schools -- construction that board members say is needed to keep pace with the county's growing student enrollment.

"It seems like daily the financial picture is changing, and it's always worse, never better," said Susan Cook, the board chairwoman.

The limit on new bonds also casts greater doubt on future projects in such county departments as Public Works and Recreation and Parks.

In his letter to Dr. Hickey, Mr. Ecker said he will fund only $15 million to $25 million worth of projects through bonds next year.

But the school system's proposed capital budget is $38 million -- with $22 million to $30 million coming from county bonds.

Other Howard agencies are seeking at least another $14 million in bonds for their projects.

The $25 million limit on new bonds for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, would be a significant cut -- continuing a trend of recent years.

Already this fiscal year, the county has funded $31 million in capital projects through bonds and has budgeted for a total of $40.5 million in new bonds, according to county finance officials.

In the last fiscal year, the county issued $45.5 million in bonds for new projects.

In the year before that, the 1994 fiscal year, it issued $60 million in bonds, said Earle Beyer of the county Finance Department.

Still, Mr. Ecker's decision to take on any new debt further raises the specter of new taxes. A county advisory panel has warned him that new debt should be accompanied by more revenues, either through taxes or new fees.

Mr. Ecker has agreed that he will need to increase property taxes or institute fees for picking up residential trash.

He said yesterday that he has not decided between the two options.

The bond requests mean debt interest payments down the road from the county's operating budget. This year, the county is paying 11.7 percent of its operating budget on debt service. Mr. Ecker would like to cut that to less than 10 percent.

In his letter to Dr. Hickey, Mr. Ecker indicated that most of the new bonded debt will be devoted to schools.

Exactly how much the school system will need hinges on how much money is provided by the state.

The state has allocated about half of its $133 million statewide school construction budget, including $5.7 million to Howard for next year.

These funds would be used to build Ilchester Elementary School, rebuild Wilde Lake High School and renovate Oakland Mills Middle School and science laboratories at Atholton and Howard high schools.

Later this month, school officials said, they will go before the state Board of Public Works to appeal for more funding -- as much as $7.4 million more for such projects as the new middle school in Fulton, an addition to Hammond High School and renovations to Dunloggin and Wilde Lake middle schools.

Even if the state provides all of the money requested by the school system, the county still would need to come up with about $22 million in bond funding for schools, said Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.

That figure is at the high end of Mr. Ecker's range for all bonds, not just schools.

Dr. Hickey said Monday that he was optimistic about state funding and was encouraged by Gov. Parris N. Glendening's recent budget announcement to allocate for next year the most money for school construction since the early 1970s.

"We can probably accomplish most, if not all, of what we have in our capital budget, but it depends on what the state is able to provide," he said.

But board members weren't so optimistic.

"That's real bleak," said Karen Campbell of the idea of relying on the state to provide a lot more school construction money for the county.

If the county makes substantial cuts to the school system's capital request, there would be few options other than to eliminate projects, Dr. Cousin said.

In the last two years, the board has reduced the size of proposed new elementary and middle schools by an average of 12 percent.

"They've been shrunk as far as then can go," Dr. Cousin said. "It's time to get the money to build, or we just can't build."

The $25 million cap on new bonds also jeopardizes school construction plans after this coming year, plans that call for capital budgets of $42 million and $22 million in fiscal years 1998 and 1999.

By fall 1999, the school system plans to have built five new elementary schools and three new middle schools.

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