Fiscal 2000 plan presented to public

Most speakers show concern over funding for schools in budget

May 07, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

More than 400 people flocked to the Westminster High School auditorium last night to listen to the Carroll County commissioners promote their proposed spending plan for fiscal 2000, which begins July 1.

The commissioners are looking to raise capital spending by $25 million to pay for school construction projects, including the new Century High in South Carroll and a new classroom building at Carroll Community College.

The budget proposal, presented to the public during a three-hour hearing, drew comments from more than 70 residents, most of whom expressed concerns about school funding.

"Carroll County's students are a most precious resource. They are the future, and they deserve the very best. Period," said Claire Kwokowski, whose three children attend public school in South Carroll. "Give them books and computers and the very best teachers that money can buy. Give them room to learn and be safe. Give them all that they need to become truly excellent."

The commissioners have proposed giving the school board $1.8 million less than it requested for operating expenses. School officials asked for $94.2 million, but will receive $92.4 million -- 5 percent more than this year -- if the proposed budget is approved.

Carroll schools are ranked 23rd in the state for student-teacher ratios. School board members C. Scott Stone and Susan Krebs raised concerns that a lack of funding would cause additional crowding and strained resources.

Under the commissioners' proposals, the county operating budget -- which covers the day-to-day cost of running county government and its agencies -- would rise by 5 percent, from $183 million this year to $193 million next year. Carroll's capital budget -- which pays for construction projects -- would swell 53 percent, from $47 million this year to $72 million next year.

This is the first budget to be proposed by the current board. Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Donald I. Dell were each elected to a third term in November. Robin Bartlett Frazier is serving her first term.

The commissioners have said they will use property and piggyback tax revenue to pay for 30 percent of their capital plan instead of by issuing bonds. This year, only 20 percent of the county capital budget was funded from tax revenues.

A booming economy and a surplus of about $9.4 million helped the commissioners meet their goal of using current revenue. The windfall was the result of an unexpected surge in local tax revenues.

About half the surplus will be saved, said county Comptroller Eugene C. Curfman. A portion of the remaining $4.7 million may be used to pay off bonds, but most of it will likely be spent on capital improvement projects.

Among those projects is the planned 1,200-capacity Century High School in Eldersburg, near Liberty Road. After a two-month feud, the commissioners and school board agreed Wednesday to open the school at its original size, with the option of expanding classroom accommodation by up to 400 seats.

The school, due to open in fall 2001, is expected to cost about $28 million.

More, better roads

The proposed capital budget also includes more than $6.6 million for road construction. Since they took office last year, the commissioners have repeatedly promised to make road improvements a priority.

"Our top three priorities are roads, schools and agricultural preservation," Frazier said a month after the election. "I am especially interested in looking at the county road systems and seeing what connections can be made to relieve traffic on those roads."

South Carroll, the county's most populous area, gets the most attention.

The proposed budget calls for the construction of seven roads in Eldersburg and Sykesville to divert traffic from congested Routes 26 and 32. Among the top priorities are the extensions of Macbeth Way, Dickenson Road, Obrecht Road and Piney Ridge Parkway. All four would run parallel to Route 26.

Agricultural preservation

Also included in the board's plan is slightly more than $4 million for agricultural preservation, the same level of funding as this year.

Dell and Gouge have said they would like to use some of the money to protect land in the Little Pipe Creek watershed. Frazier has not commented.

Carroll's agriculture preservation program allows the county to buy development rights from farmers who want to continue working the land but need money for operating costs. Since the program began in 1978, Carroll has preserved nearly 29,000 acres. The county's goal is to protect 100,000 acres by 2020.

In the operating budget, the commissioners saved some money by cutting funding for themselves. Rather than adopt a $675 monthly allowance for car expenses and home office costs, the commissioners decided to keep their $12 per diem pay, which they receive each day they show up to work or appear at an official function.

The allowance would have cost $24,300 per year -- about $10,900 more per year than the commissioners receive under the per diem plan with mileage.

The commissioners must adopt a budget by May 26.

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