Prospects good for Ag Center funding bill

Delegation says bid for expansion funds likely to pass, but not in full

February 21, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Local legislators say a bill introduced in the General Assembly to raise more money for the $3 million expansion of the Carroll County Agriculture Center has a good chance of passing, though it might not produce the full $650,000 the county has requested.

The Ag Center Board has become accustomed to receiving only incremental amounts during the past four years, raised through the state-issued bonds.

"That's called the game of patience, and the game of waiting," said Republican Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which is considering the bond bill. "We usually have bond bill requests for three times as much as we can distribute."

She and other members of Carroll County's legislative delegation support the House bill and its identical Senate version.

Stocksdale said the bill should have a good chance of passing the appropriations committees. She said that because it is the only such bond bill requested by the Carroll delegation, it is likely to succeed, though probably not for the full request.

The delegation is also backing a bond bill for Carroll County General Hospital. That bill has the backing of the Maryland Hospital Association.

"A lot of the other counties have millions of dollars requested for bond bills," said Sen.

Larry E. Haines, chairman of the county's delegation. "I feel confident that we're going to get the funding. I don't think we'll get the full amount -- but I think the Ag Center deserves the full amount."

"Last year, we asked for $950,000, and we got $300,000," said Lawrence Meeks, president of the Ag Center board.

The board had always intended to come back and ask for more, he said.

He said the board's architects and engineers estimate the building will cost at least $3 million. The board had hoped the price would be closer to $2 million, and twice scaled back the design to trim costs.

Three months ago, the board scheduled the groundbreaking date for immediately after the July 2000 4-H fair; it hopes to finish the structure in time for the 2001 fair.

Stocksdale and Haines said the imminent groundbreaking could persuade legislators to appropriate more of the request this year.

The board is continuing to raise money for the project, which has received $700,000 from two previous state-issued bonds, as well as $1.1 million in cash and pledges.

The Ag Center is a private, nonprofit organization. Its board members come from several agricultural groups in the county, including the Carroll County Farm Bureau, the Grange clubs and the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

The center's biggest event of the year is the county 4-H fair, but the center is used year-round for educational and recreational events. Last month, dozens of area farmers used the center for their annual midwinter seminars with the extension service. A month before that, 42 farmers participated in a workshop on growing hay.

The expansion is needed for two reasons, Ag Center officials say. First, 4-H programs need more space. The expansion would replace the oldest barns and sheds at the rear of the center. These structures were built by volunteers in the 1950s. Since then, 4-H membership has increased as Carroll's population has grown. Temporary tents must be put up to house the large number of animals at the fair.

Second, the board hopes a larger, more modern facility will attract commercial and other paying exhibitors, much as the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium has shows throughout the year. Such activity could produce revenue to support nonprofit ventures.

Any costs of the expansion not covered by grants could be financed through a loan from county government, if the Ag Center board chooses to accept one. The commissioners have approved selling bonds for up to $2.5 million to help finance the project.

Meeks said the board wants to seek as much grant money as possible before it borrows money.

Several other proposed bills in this session could affect farmers in Carroll and statewide. They include:

House Bill 327, sponsored by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, would allow modifications to the Water Quality Act of 1998, which has set off a storm in the farming community because of nutrient-management regulations. Although the bill suggests only a few changes, once it gets to hearings in the Environmental Matters Committee, it could be open to further changes, said Del. Joseph Getty.

House Bill 952, whose sponsors include Getty and Republican Del. Carmen Amedori, would help farmers with the cost of soil testing required in the nutrient-management rules set to go into effect next year.

House Bill 434, sponsored by Getty, would amend the rules for the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program to allow a home to be built on land after it has been entered in the program, under certain conditions. Getty said the change would adapt the program to changing farming practices, in which large farms are divided into smaller ones, and those smaller farms require the operator-owner to live on them. It also helps farm families who want their children to build homes on the land.

Senate Bill 281, whose list of sponsors includes Haines, would create a commemorative vehicle license plate for agriculture, to raise money the way the Chesapeake Bay plates do. Haines said he would like the money to go to agriculture education in schools.

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