Robey submits $148.5 million capital budget

Proposal would postpone elementary, high school

Plan uses $71 million in bonds

Executive notes rejection of transfer tax proposal

April 01, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive James N. Robey would increase spending on construction projects by 50 percent in the fiscal year beginning in July but would delay an eagerly anticipated new high school and one new elementary school in a $148.5 million capital budget proposed yesterday.

With no surplus cash and only $4.4 million in state school construction money promised for next year, Robey said he cannot keep up with the county's needs without help, and he is not willing to borrow $100 million to fill the gap. Three years ago, cash from surplus and state funding amounted to nearly $50 million.

"I didn't feel comfortable with [borrowing] $100 million," he said, noting the need to protect the county's AAA bond rating, which guarantees the lowest interest rate on county bonds.

"This is not a one-year issue that's facing us," said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, mindful of predictions that next year's school board capital budget is likely to exceed $125 million.

Several projects for which Robey included money in this budget have large 2005 price tags - including $36.5 million for new elementary schools in the western and northeastern county, $21 million for the new high school and $11.8 million to finish a new Glenwood Senior Center on which he proposed spending $410,000 next year.

Robey included $6.4 million toward an $11.1 million public safety training center in Cooksville but sliced $21 million from the high school project, delaying the school's opening until 2006. He also delayed a new northern elementary school, cutting $3 million for site purchases that Deputy Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said are needed.

"What we would like to do is not wait until the 11th hour" to buy land for new schools, Cousin said.

Robey's plan includes $1.1 million for a long-planned High Ridge Park along the Patuxent River in North Laurel and $8.7 million for an addition at Glenelg High School. But $2.6 million for Howard Community College renovations and planning for a new student services building was cut.

The executive allocated $10 million for renovations to older schools and $7.3 million for repairs to other county facilities - items he said were vital to keep older structures from falling apart - but just $3.7 million for road resurfacing, about half of what Wacks said is "ideal."

To finance his plan, Robey wants to borrow a record $71.7 million by selling bonds - although some have suggested $100 million in bond sales would be just as safe.

The $87 million school board request was cut by $32 million, and Robey slashed $54 million from the overall list of requests. Without the higher transfer tax he had sought from state legislators, the county cannot afford more, he said.

"This proposal reflects the austerity of the budget situation we are facing," he said. "It is increasingly clear that a dedicated revenue source for education funding is required. Without it, Howard County cannot keep pace with the demands of school enrollment growth, maintain a strained and aging infrastructure network and meet the public's increasing expectation of amenity-related service facilities, all at the same time."

Plan faces criticism

Several officials questioned Robey's choices.

"It really surprises me that he didn't put more of the capital budget in education," said state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, the Republican chairman of the county's senators, who all opposed the transfer tax bill. "There are a whole lot of nice things to have," Kittleman said about the training center. "Maybe a school is more important." Robey's transfer tax plan would have raised the tax on home sales, using the money to borrow and repay $215 million for schools over eight years.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said he will offer an amendment to put the high school money back in the budget. "I think that's necessary, and we have borrowing capacity," he said.

Robey's budget includes $4.5 million to prepare the site and install water and sewer pipes, but delays construction of the building.

Fighting back

Robey bristled at Kittleman's comments, inviting the western county senator to "come in and meet with me" on the need for the training center. Kittleman, Robey said, "hasn't a clue" about the training needs of county firefighters and police.

Del. Frank S. Turner, Democratic chairman of the county House delegation, disagreed with Kittleman on the training center and the transfer tax.

"We shouldn't have to go outside the county to borrow other people's training facilities. If that's not a priority for some people, it should be," he said.

The transfer tax idea, rather than raising county income and property taxes "is just totally logical to me," he said, especially since the state is likely to increase property taxes, too.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a north Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he was most interested in the renovations for older schools, which Robey included in his proposal.

"We have a responsibility that when we build new schools we do our very best to bring the older schools up to the same standards, or as close as we can. It's about the quality of life in those communities."

The County Council has until June to approve a capital and an operating budget, due for release April 21.

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