Officials approve budget for 2001

$35.4 million marked for new high school in Westminster

May 24, 2000|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Despite one member's concerns about water resources, congested roads and a new high school, the Board of County Commissioners approved a $271.4 million budget yesterday for fiscal year 2001.

"Last year, I thought we set some priorities and were looking in the right direction," said Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who voted against the budget, noting improvements to the water treatment plant at Liberty Reservoir and the nearly $12 million that was set aside for road construction in South Carroll.

"This year, I think we've departed from some of those things and that concerns me," Frazier said. "In this budget we're spending without thought to what enhances economic development: roads, water and sewer, and quality schools. It is not a direction I want to take."

Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Donald I. Dell approved the budget, which allocates $205.2 million for the day-to-day cost of running county government and its agencies. The spending plan doesn't call for any increase in taxes.

An additional $66.2 million was approved for construction projects, including road improvements and minor upgrades to the South Carroll water system. The commissioners will spend about $4 million less on road projects next year than they did this year.

School spending will consume about half of the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

"In spite of your opinions, this is the ninth year I've worked on the budget and I believe it's the most aggressive one we've had," said Dell to Frazier. Dell is serving his third consecutive four-year term.

Gouge, who is also serving a third term, echoed Dell's comments.

"I feel the budget addresses the needs of the county," she said. "I think we're moving in the right direction, and I feel comfortable with the way we're using the dollars we have."

The most expensive item on the commissioners' list of construction projects is a $35.4 million second high school in Westminster.

Frazier has questioned the wisdom of moving forward with the project, giving as her reason concern over problems in the school system's construction department, which has been the subject of a nearly yearlong grand jury investigation.

"I cannot, in good conscience, vote for a budget that includes millions of dollars to build a school at this time in this location," said Frazier, who strongly opposes building the school off Center Street. She favored an 80-acre site known as the O'Farrell property, at the southwest corner of Sullivan and Lemmon roads, north of Westminster.

"I cannot justify to the Carroll County taxpayers moving forward with another school project without a commitment from the state," Frazier said.

When handing out a record $300.7 million in school construction and renovation money two weeks ago, the state denied funding for the high school and the adjacent Cranberry Station Elementary School, saying that enrollment projections do not justify construction of the two schools.

That means Carroll taxpayers face the prospect of footing the bill for the nearly $10 million elementary school, which opened under capacity last fall, and for the high school, scheduled to open in 2002.

Despite Frazier's concerns, the county and the school system are forging ahead. The school board approved a grading contract for the high school last month, and preliminary site work has begun.

Carroll is the first county in Maryland to proceed with construction of a high school without any guarantee of state reimbursement, state officials said.

The commissioners' spending plan was drafted behind closed doors with the help of county budget director Steven D. Powell. It is based on the property tax rate of $2.62 per $100 of assessed value, and a local "piggyback" income tax of 55 percent of the state income tax.

During yesterday's meeting, Frazier said the budget does not adequately address Carroll's need for new water sources and improved roads in the Freedom area, the county's most populous area with nearly 30,000 residents.

Several road projects -- including the extension of Monroe Avenue and construction of Piney Ridge Parkway -- have been delayed, and a proposal to draw water from the county's reservoir at Piney Run Lake in South Carroll is not addressed in the budget.

Frazier has said she would like to revive plans for a $15 million Piney Run plant, rather than "beg the city of Baltimore for water."

The county draws water from Liberty Reservoir, a 45 billion-gallon lake owned by Baltimore. Carroll officials are negotiating for land to expand the Freedom plant and for an increase in the county's daily draw from the reservoir.

Piney Run could help supply water to South Carroll. Eldersburg and Sykesville residents have endured three consecutive summers of water shortages, and they expect little relief this summer.

Plans for a new well on a 3-acre site leased from Fairhaven Retirement Community are on hold as the county waits for a state appropriation permit. The well could provide as much as 340,000 gallons of water a day, more than 10 percent of the county's daily draw from Liberty Reservoir.

Design work for the Fairhaven well has been completed, and the project is going to bid. But the well is not expected to be in operation until August at the earliest. County officials had earlier predicted that the well would be working by Memorial Day.

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