Schools building plan upsets county officials Extra spending seen as risk to bond rating

July 09, 1998|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

The inclusion of $25 million worth of additional projects in the school board's newly adopted long-range building plan drew criticism yesterday from county officials, who say the construction schedule is unrealistic.

The 10-year Facilities Master Plan, approved by the school board last month, fails to take into account previous spending projections for school construction, county budget director Steven D. Powell and Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown told board members.

"What we're mainly concerned about at this point is if we get a 10-year Facilities Master Plan, the next year's plan should not suddenly have three or four additional projects on it right at year six or five," Brown said at a meeting of the commissioners and the board.

Powell said the extra school expenditures could hurt the county's excellent bond rating and low interest rates.

"When we go to New York, they want to know the financing for the full 10-year plan," Powell said. "Now there will be a $25 million difference that we'll have to explain when we go back."

The school board's facilities master plan for 1998-2007 includes two new projects in the fast-growing South Carroll area -- a middle school and a career and technology center, both due for construction in 2005.

The board also voted to move renovation of two aging elementary schools up on the schedule to 2006.

Previously, school planning staff had included William Winchester Elementary in Westminster and Freedom Elementary in Sykesville in the "future" category with no definite date for renovations.

Brown and Powell said the new projects should be placed in the 10th year of the master plan. They argued that the plan ignores the county's $105 million six-year capital improvement program, which outlines the financial commitments to school construction and renovations from fiscal 1999 through 2004.

Powell said that by 2004, total revenues generated by the county's piggyback tax will go toward repaying construction loans for new schools.

"The debt service in the six-year plan fully utilizes the piggyback tax," Powell said. "There will literally be no remaining money."

Last year, the commissioners reduced the piggyback tax -- the county's portion of the state income tax -- from 58 percent to 55 percent. The rationale was to sell bonds to pay for schools and spread the burden over more than one generation of students.

"We struggled mightily to do the $105 million [capital improvement program], and it is disconcerting to think that we might have to shift funds from other projects into school projects sooner than we thought we would," Brown said.

"This board [of County Commissioners] has tried to put finance management practices and principles into capital improvement program planning. If the system is going to work, we have to have a meeting of the minds."

After listening to the concerns of Brown and Powell, school board President Scott Stone suggested that a task force of school and county officials developing cost-saving measures in the school system should also look at the Facilities Master Plan.

"I'm going to ask the team to begin looking into that for us to close the budgetary gap," Stone said.

Brown said he supported the idea and would take the proposal to the other two commissioners, who were not at the meeting.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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