Officials present needs to state

Money to build schools is top priority, council tells Annapolis delegation

Harford County

November 09, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

If Harford County Council members could be granted only one wish from the 2004 General Assembly session, it would be for the right to raise revenue to pay for the construction of a school complex and to renovate other schools greatly in need of repair.

"If you can give us anything, let it be a funding stream for a new school," Council President Robert S. Wagner told members of the county legislative delegation during a meeting last week. "That's our biggest plea today."

The all-day session Wednesday at Harford Community College was designed to allow county officials to present their wish lists for the 90-day legislative session that starts in January.

"Hopefully, we will be able to deliver on some of your requests," Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the 11-member delegation, told those attending the meeting.

Like little kids meeting with Santa, county officials including County Executive James M. Harkins, schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas and Aberdeen Mayor Douglas S. Wilson also met with lawmakers to present their requests.

After the County Council's half-hour session with the delegation, Wagner said funding for the planned Patterson Mill middle and high school complex, just south of Bel Air, and for the renovation of older schools "was the most important issue we have. It's absolutely the biggest thing they can help us with."

The Patterson Mill complex, expected to accommodate 1,600 students, would reduce attendance at six other schools and give them room to grow.

Crowded schools that would benefit from the new complex include Bel Air Middle, Southampton Middle, Fallston Middle, Bel Air High, C. Milton Wright High and Fallston High.

The six council members (Lance Miller was absent) devoted their full presentation to enabling legislation that would allow the council to impose an excise tax on new buildings or impact fees on new homes to pay for school construction.

The council is also seeking the right to increase the transfer tax on the sale of all homes from 1 percent to 1.5 percent. If approved, it could raise about $6 million a year for school construction or renovation.

The legislature has to give its approval to any such tax increases before the County Council can impose them.

Councilman Dion F. Guthrie said some of the older schools in the county "are in dire need of repair. At Edgewood High School, 50-gallon drums are set in the halls to catch the water" when it rains, he said.

Harkins' list was much longer.

He asked the delegation to do what it can to preserve state aid to local governments. "That's at the top of our list," he said.

The county took a $3.4 million cut in state aid this year. It forced department managers to trim budgets and freeze hiring. Only the public school system, which received a slight increase in funding, was exempt from budget cuts. County workers received no cost-of-living or merit increases in pay.

Harkins said he is giving "serious consideration" to alternative plans for school construction revenue but told the delegation that he would hold off on suggesting specific legislation.

He disclosed that the county has hired Tischler & Associates Inc. to evaluate potential revenue sources.

In answer to a question from Del. Mary-Dulany James, a District 34A Democrat, Harkins called the council's request for new funding sources a "dicey issue" and said he would wait until he sees the Tischler report before he submits a request for school funding.

He told the lawmakers that he plans to move ahead with forward funding of the Patterson Mill school complex. Under this arrangement, the county would pay the full cost - estimated at $52 million - of the school project with hopes of being reimbursed later by the state for about half the cost.

Harkins said that any plan to reduce crowding in public schools would have to include "a strenuous commitment on the part of the superintendent" to a school-redistricting plan. Such a plan would bus students from crowded schools in one part of the county to roomier schools in other parts of the county.

"Many folks feel that when they buy a house, they buy a school," Harkins told the delegation. "That's not necessarily true in this county."

Other requests on the county executive's list included:

Funding for the design and construction of safety and capacity improvements to the Interstate 95 interchange at state Routes 24 and 924. It is considered the most dangerous intersection in the county and averages more than one accident a week.

Money for widening the Bel Air bypass to make its entire length a four-lane highway.

Support for bond funding to construct a YMCA in the Box Hill section of the county.

Claudia E. Chiesi, president of Harford Community College, asked for a funding increase to keep pace with the anticipated growth of enrollment at the school.

She said the college was forced to boost tuition this year to cover costs and this has forced students to work longer hours to help pay for their education.

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