Balto. Co. schools eye cutting costs on facility repairs

Lack of staff leads to outside expense, board members say

Consultants a `harbinger'

February 25, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore County prepares to spend as much as $400 million to fix aging school buildings, some school board members fear the system is wasting money on outside companies to oversee and inspect construction projects because its facilities department is understaffed.

The issue of facilities staffing was raised this week as the board approved $479,000 in contracts for work the department's officials said they normally would do but can't because of their workload.

"I really believe that we could have eliminated 25 percent of these expenses," said school board member H. J. "Jack" Barnhart, chairman of the board's building committee. "The proper personnel on staff could have saved us over $125,000."

Despite those concerns, the board this week delayed approval of any new facilities positions until a study is completed by the county's budget office.

The concerns about whether the facilities department has enough engineers, architects and inspectors arose as the school system spends record amounts of money from the state and county to repair its buildings. The board is seeking $127.7 million for school construction for 1999-2000 and tentatively plans to ask for more in 2000-2001.

Increased demand for outside consultants "is a harbinger of things we can expect to come in the future if we are fortunate enough to get the money to move forward," said board member Phyllis E. Ettinger, a member of the board's building committee.

Among the contracts approved at Tuesday night's school board meeting were $85,000 to oversee construction and monitoring of the roof replacement at Owings Mills High School and $50,000 to do similar work at Sussex Elementary School.

In both construction projects -- and with repairs at five other schools -- work was given to outside consultants because of the facilities department's workload.

Board members said they believe that using facilities department employees would be much cheaper than regularly hiring outside consultants. Hiring new employees would increase the cost of the operating budget while producing savings in the system's capital budget, according to school board members.

School officials agree that they need more personnel in the facilities department.

"I will not mislead you and say we would never need consultants if we hired more people," said Gene Neff, the school system's chief engineer. "But it would reduce the number we would need, and it would reduce the amount of money in many of the contracts."

As the board this week approved its budget request for 1999-2000, Neff proposed adding 20 positions -- including a construction coordinator, two electrical engineers, and 10 inspectors -- at a cost of $924,000 per year.

Board members considered the request, but -- at the recommendation of Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione -- agreed to wait to add any new facilities positions until the budget office's study of the facilities department is done in April.

The completion date should give the board time to seek extra facilities positions in a supplemental budget request.

"The longer we drag our feet, the more we spend," Barnhart said. "In very short order, we could spend $1 million on work that could be done inside."

Last spring, the board set aside $150,000 to study the system's administrative structure -- including facilities -- but the study was never begun by school officials.

"The staff did not do the job it was supposed to do," Marchione acknowledged to the board.

Marchione said he expects that the budget office's study will tell the school board how many positions should be added to achieve the most savings.

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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