$92.7 million proposed for construction Ecker capital budget would cut education request by 29%

Debt would rise $26 million

Landfill cleanups would be finished, school project delayed

March 28, 1997|By Craig Timberg and Howard Libit | Craig Timberg and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker proposed yesterday a $92.7 million budget for construction projects for next year that would finish two landfill cleanups, delay construction of a middle school and edge the county closer to building an overpass at a congested Columbia intersection.

The capital budget would swell Howard County's $387 million debt -- the highest per capita in the state -- by $26 million. Fees, state aid and special funds pay for other parts of the $92.7 million budget.

"Education is my No. 1 priority," Ecker said at a news conference in his office as he presented the capital budget.

He proposed spending $25.5 million -- including $18.7 million in new county borrowing -- on such school projects as renovations at the Applications and Research Laboratory and additions to Mount Hebron High School and three Howard elementaries.

But Ecker cut the schools' request by more than $10 million -- 29 percent -- with a variety of trims and a proposal to delay one of two new middle schools proposed for Fulton and Ellicott City. Plans for a new instructional building at Howard Community College were also cut.

Most other areas of county government saw their requests fulfilled or increased by Ecker.

He is proposing $36 million to cover half the cost of three major intersection projects: Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway and two intersections along U.S. 29 in southern Howard County.

Ecker wants the state to pay the other half. State Highway Administration officials have not agreed to do so, but Ecker and highway officials expressed optimism that a deal will be made to split the cost.

"All three of them will be built," he said.

Ecker also rejected the idea of imposing a storm water management fee on property owners, suggested by a citizens' committee he appointed to study new federal requirements in that area.

The most politically charged part of the capital budget is education. Enrollment in the 39,000-student system has grown more than 50 percent since 1986 and is still increasing. That has prompted an ambitious and expensive school construction program.

School officials had asked for $35.6 million next year. Ecker cut that to $25.5 million.

The cuts disappointed -- but did not surprise -- educators.

'I'm not upset'

"I wish he had more money, but I'm not upset with [Ecker] at all," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "I'm concerned about the cuts, but I also understand the bind he is in."

School officials and Ecker said the state might give Howard enough money -- perhaps as much as $8 million more -- to rescue projects that Ecker cut. The state has approved $4.2 million in school aid for Howard.

If the state does not provide the additional funds, Ecker said, the school board can decide which projects to cut to reach his bottom line. But he offered suggestions.

He favors delaying construction of a $6.5 million middle school off Ilchester Road in Ellicott City. Hickey prefers delaying the new middle school proposed for Fulton.

The Ellicott City school would serve students from Ellicott Mills Middle School for two years while that school is renovated. Delaying the new school would mean delaying the renovations at Ellicott Mills.

Ecker's budget includes funds for additions to Mount Hebron High School and Deep Run, Waterloo and Worthington elementary schools, but he cut tens of thousands of dollars for equipment for those schools, which could cause trouble for school officials.

"The fact of the matter is that we have the same number of students in these projects, and we'll need the same number of desks and same number of chairs," Hickey said. "I'm not sure what we're going to do with some of these cuts."

In addition to completing new elementaries in Glenelg and North Laurel, the other big education budget item is $2.6 million to finish renovating and equipping the school system's Applications and Research Laboratory, formerly the school system's School of Technology. The building will be used by students in the county's technology magnet program.

Ecker proposed delaying construction of an 85,000-square-foot instructional building at Howard Community College and said yesterday that he wasn't sure it would be built.

The highway intersections are the other controversial projects in Ecker's proposed capital budget.

Political leaders and activists from east Columbia say Ecker promised to build an overpass intersection at Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway before allowing the huge Columbia Crossing retail center to be built nearby by the Rouse Co.

Ecker has shifted his position on the $16 million project several times but recently has offered to build it if the state shares the cost of that intersection and two on U.S. 29, at Route 216 and Johns Hopkins Road.

County and state officials have been discussing terms of a deal for months, and a decision could be "imminent," said State Highway Administration spokeswoman Fran Counihan.

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