Office complex project on hold

Proposal would transfer government building funds to school construction

Howard County

October 03, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A proposal to transfer money set aside for a new Howard County government complex to two school projects doesn't mean the office idea is dead, although County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone says it should be, for now.

The new Ellicott City office campus is a frequent target for critics of County Executive James N. Robey. They charge that his plan to raise school construction money by increasing the county's real estate transfer tax would also benefit non-school projects such as the new offices.

Robey has said that situation is his dilemma: how to pay for increasingly expensive schools and still afford other projects the county's growth has prompted, such as new offices to enlarge the aging 1970s complex as well as a new courthouse.

"It's still a critical need," he said about the roof leaks, heating and cooling problems, and obsolete electrical and computer wiring in the George Howard Building. Last winter, county legislators refused to approve money for renovations and another addition to the historic Circuit Court building, saying a new one is needed.

The county has made virtually no progress on the office complex since it bought 25 acres a stone's throw from the current government complex in 2000 and sold a handful of surplus properties that raised $6 million for the project. Another $2.5 million in excise taxes are earmarked to build a road through the site, between Ridge Road and Rogers Avenue, just east of U.S. 40.

All of that is on hold, according to Robey and Public Works Director James M. Irvin, because of the money crunch.

"We're going to try some different things," Irvin said, such as private lease-back financing. Constructing a courts building on the new campus is also a possibility, he said.

The budget transfer, which would shift $2.5 million from the campus fund to help pay for additions and renovations at Oakland Mills High School and the new Northeast Elementary, is merely a bookkeeping change driven by federal tax laws, Robey administration officials said.

Tax-exempt bond funds used to pay for several surplus Howard properties that the county sold to raise the $6 million must be used within two years, a deadline about to expire.

But Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, called progress on the new offices "highly unlikely," and said he would oppose returning the money to the campus account as part of next spring's fiscal 2005 budget.

"We need the money for school construction," he said, referring to schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's request for nearly $150 million next year.

"Ultimately, I want to solve our problems with school construction and if that means shelving the campus project, then I believe that's that," he said.

Western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman said, "I have always been somewhat skeptical of the campus," adding that schools must come first.

Robey said he has not given up on the office complex, though he too has consistently said he would put schools before county offices.

"It's not going as fast as I thought it would," Robey said about the new complex. "It's not going to happen right away."

If his transfer tax increase is approved by the county's General Assembly delegation next year, easing the pressure for school funding, then the offices or a courthouse could move forward.

"It depends on what the budget looks like," Robey said.

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