Building plans are put on hold

High costs, high bids causing delays for schools, senior center

Howard County

April 04, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Escalating construction costs have forced Howard County to postpone one school renovation and rethink a second, while over-budget bids are delaying completion of the new Ellicott City Senior Center.

It's a disturbing trend, officials said - the latest fallout from years of prosperity that have left local contractors flush with work, and made labor scarce and expensive. Moreover, it comes at a time when the county's elected officials are pushing for renovations and additions to create more classroom space and bring older county schools up to date. The last thing they want is to tell residents that the plans they have worked on for a year are kaput.

"This is not anybody's fault," said County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel/Savage Democrat who has been working on plans for renovations at Atholton Elementary in his district, and pushing for accelerated work on Columbia's Dasher Green Elemen- tary/Owen Brown Middle School, which share a building.

"The question is, are we going to be able to go back to the community and say we can't do projects we planned? I'm not willing to do that," Guzzone said after a meeting yesterday between the council and the school board at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

But bids coming in too high could be a problem for some time, school officials said.

"The climate right now is just not favorable for us. I'm very concerned. We've got a backlog of construction we've got to deal with," said Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.

Renovations at Atholton Elementary School have been postponed for a year, Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin told the council, because the bids came in $1.2 million over the $3 million budgeted and the county can't arrange for the work to be done this summer, when children will be out of the building.

Parents at Atholton Elementary are angry, said Parent Teacher Association President Becky Fitchett.

"The county is the one that asked parents and teachers to spend their entire summer [last year] working on this. A lot of people feel their work and effort went down the drain," she said. The school even gave up applying for a separate grant for upgraded wiring at Atholton for computers, believing that the renovation would solve the problem. People at Atholton, she said, "feel so taken advantage of."

The bid on three-year Dasher Green Elementary/Owen Brown Middle school renovations came in at double the $3 million budgeted, Cousin said, and the school board is likely to reject that at a meeting tomorrow night. Bids are being evaluated for construction of a $9 million Alternative Learning Center, Cousin said.

Cousin said he was "astounded" that the bids came back nearly double the budgeted amount, so he is re-evaluating all the elements of that job. Cousin and Guzzone said the county hopes it can pay for the first year's work and then look for more money to finish the job next year.

The problem is a broad one, said O'Rourke. "It's not just schools, and it's not just Maryland," he said.

A complication, Cousin said, is that neighboring Baltimore County is in the midst of a $560 million renovation program for most of its 160 school buildings, starting with elementary schools. The two counties often compete for the same contractors, Cousins said.

"It's the largest single capital project in county history," said Elise Armacost, spokeswoman for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Efforts to finish a new $2.7 million Ellicott City Senior Center by fall likely will be pushed back until spring 2002 because construction bids for that were up to $700,000 over budget, said James M. Irvin, the county public works director.

Only site preparation for the center has been started.

"We think we're going to be able to get it back into budget," Irvin said.

County Executive James N. Robey noted the problem in announcing his $152. 4 million capital budget Monday. He vowed to finish the senior center despite the higher bids.

"We will find a way. We are going to do it," he said of the center.

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