Smith urges fight to keep state funding for schools

Balto. Co. executive asks delegation help to recover $17 million for renovations

January 04, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. called on the county's legislative delegation yesterday to fight a state policy that effectively eliminated $17 million in grants to renovate and repair seven middle schools.

The request came in Smith's package of priorities for the coming General Assembly session. Typically, new county executives have few proposals for the legislative session because it comes so soon after their inauguration, but Smith said "political necessity" forced him to take an aggressive approach on several issues.

He said proposals and policies being discussed on the state level would set back the county's $560 million school renovation and construction program, rob the county of income tax revenue and burden the county with housing thousands of additional inmates in its detention center.

"Granted, this is a tough year, but there is a pool of money the state is going to spend on school construction," Smith said. "It's not like we're asking the state to pay our bills."

The county requested $31 million this year in school construction and renovation funds - far less than it asked for during the boom times of the 1990s - but state officials have recommended awarding only $2.9 million, Smith said.

The reason that $17 million was cut is tied to a policy of the Interagency Committee on School Construction, which requires counties to make program enhancements to their schools when they get state renovation money, Smith said.

For example, if a county wants money to fix a leaky roof, it can get it only by also adding something, such as a computer lab.

The policy has been on the books for years, but under Smith's predecessor, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Baltimore County persuaded the state to give money for its basics-only approach to renovation anyway, said Matthew Joseph, Smith's education liaison. As a result, the county was able to repair a large number of schools, rather than "exacerbate the have and have-not problem," Joseph said.

Smith said he understands the desire for program enhancements, but this isn't the year to pursue them. The state must close an estimated $1.2 billion shortfall this year.

"The state doesn't have any additional dollars to contribute to the program enhancements," Smith said. "It is a lose-lose proposition that is being suggested."

The seven middle schools up for repairs are: Dumbarton, Sparrows Point, Sudbrook, Arbutus, Middle River, Ridgely and Southwest Academy.

The state has also rejected the county's request for planning approval for a new Windsor Mill Middle School that would eventually cost $6.7 million.

Officials at the Interagency Committee could not be reached yesterday. Last month, Executive Director Yale Stenzler sent a memo to Maryland school superintendents indicating that the state's budget problems, coupled with the uncertainty caused by the transition to a new governor, have forced it to make conservative recommendations.

Smith also called on the county's delegates and senators to fight two other ideas that would improve the state's fiscal climate at the expense of the county.

One would authorize the state to take up to $100 million in income tax funds collected for the counties. The other would change the minimum sentence requirement for state correctional facilities, effectively shifting thousands of prisoners from state prisons to county jails.

The Maryland comptroller collects all state and local taxes and distributes the local portion of the receipts to counties several times a year. The Commission on Maryland's Fiscal Structure, authorized by the legislature last year, suggested unallocated reductions of $100 million in local aid, administered through the local income tax, as one of the ways to balance the state budget.

"Our citizens expect these funds to be used for local police, fire and education services," Smith said.

If the state follows through on the idea of housing all inmates with sentences of less than 24 months in local detention centers, Baltimore County's daily jail population would increase by about a third, according to figures Smith released yesterday. People serving sentences of more than 18 months are currently placed in state facilities.

The county is in the midst of a $70 million expansion of its jail, which would be overcrowded from the day it opened if the state changed its policy.

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