Robey plans more bonds for building

Executive wants most of capital funds to go to schools

$97.1 million budget plan

Infrastructure, maintenance projects delayed

Howard County

April 02, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County wants to borrow more but spend less on bricks-and-mortar projects next fiscal year, according to a proposed capital budget released yesterday by County Executive James N. Robey.

Almost all the new borrowing will go to finance new public school or community college seats, Robey said, while maintenance and infrastructure projects will be delayed.

Adding $7.9 million in state school construction funding - compared with $25 million last year - grants and county bonds, almost all school requests will be satisfied, he said. Nearly two-thirds of the entire capital budget would go to public schools and Howard Community College.

The executive's proposal calls for spending $97.1 million, two-thirds of this year's total and substantially less than the $130 million requested. Roughly half the funds would come from borrowing via municipal bond sales - $5.6 million more borrowing than this year.

That is partly to compensate for the loss of huge annual cash surpluses during the three previous years. Robey said he is putting no cash into capital spending for next year, compared with $72 million spent over the past three years.

The sale of $48.9 million in bonds is also much lower than the $69 million worth sold in 1991, the county's peak year.

"This has been an unusual year," Robey said, adding that he postponed items such as traffic calming, road resurfacing and bridge reconstruction for a year to compensate.

Robey noted lower revenues in his budget letter to the County Council, which must review and vote on the budget by June. In borrowing $49 million, he noted, he is under the $50 million ceiling recommended by the Spending Affordability Committee, and the county's debt compared to assessable base is lower than in 1999. Robey's operating budget is scheduled for release April 17.

Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said it can be difficult predicting what such a volatile economy will produce in revenues. "I'm always accused of being too liberal [when there's a shortfall] or too conservative [when there's a surplus]."

Despite the lack of surplus cash and lower state school construction funding because of the recession, school officials said the budget proposal will cover their most vital projects.

Thanks partly to construction bids $5.2 million lower than expected on the Northeast Elementary and Folly Quarter Middle schools in the western county, "we can live with it," said Sydney L. Cousin, the system's chief operating officer.

The proposal contains $1.7 million for future land purchases for schools, but postpones renovations of the former Faulkner Ridge Elementary building in Columbia, which is used for teacher training.

Robey included money for several key projects, including 13 school additions, though others the county wanted to advance were postponed.

For example, there is money to begin development of a proposed police and fire training facility in Marriottsville, despite the lack of $500,000 in aid requested from the state. But restoration of the Blandair mansion, for which the county requested another $500,000 in state funding, was postponed, as was a Circuit Court renovation project for which state money was requested. Similarly, Robey is deferring $400,000 from the development of Troy Hill Park near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 100.

Also funded were renovations of the County Council chambers in Ellicott City and renovations of Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia.

Robey also funded $1.8 million in long-awaited renovations of the county's animal shelter, which pleased Ann Selnick, president of Animal Advocates of Howard County.

Noting that the county promised two years ago to renovate the facility on Davis Road, Selnick said, "We are glad the county is following through on their promise." The current shelter "is deteriorating and has been badly in need of repairs and expansion for years."

Less pleased were pupils of Centennial Lane Elementary, who had hoped for money to pay for a footbridge across the busy roadway in front of their school. The funding is planned for the 2005 fiscal year instead, but teacher Joan Scheler said the children are far from discouraged.

"They were so excited," she said, to get a letter from Robey after they testified in favor of the bridge at a Planning Board hearing, but they haven't given up. The fourth-graders who testified have composed a poster-sized letter to Robey, signed by dozens of pupils, to present to him, and they plan a new presentation before the County Council this month.

"How do they [county officials] expect kids to cross Centennial Lane?" Scheler said. "There's no crosswalk."

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