Robey unveils $198.4 million capital plan

Proposed budget defers northeast elementary, some school renovations

Record high spending request

New-home excise tax pushed as major source of funding for package

Howard County

April 02, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Despite proposing record high spending on schools, Howard County Executive James N. Robey's $198.4 million capital budget would push back a new northeast elementary school another year, if the County Council agrees.

The budget includes money to build a new fire station in west Columbia; renovate the Savage station and Howard High School; widen a section of Route 108; start all-day kindergarten; and continue developing a new police and fire training facility.

Officials agreed that with money tight and no firm site for the new elementary, it made sense to defer it. But that did not placate Linda Dombrowski, president of the crowded Hollifield Station Elementary in Ellicott City.

"Unless that school is built, we don't have relief in the foreseeable future," she said of Hollingfield Station, which has 840 pupils and five portable classrooms, despite the opening of a 150-seat addition last year. The delay is "very unfortunate given the severe crowding in this region," she said.

The executive's plan for fiscal 2005, unveiled yesterday, shows the ironies of suburban budgeting.

Robey is proposing $94.7 million for school projects - nearly 70 percent higher than this year's total - but he still deferred the elementary school and $3.3 million in renovations to older buildings.

Without the $42 million a new-home excise tax would produce, "it would have been a very different budget and a much sadder day," said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director.

The General Assembly is considering the excise tax, which the Howard delegation has approved.

Robey and several County Council members criticized western county legislators who opposed new taxes for school construction, despite the new schools, parks and senior center proposed for their section of the county.

Money from the excise tax would pay for half the remaining cost of a new northern high school in Marriottsville; the full cost of a new western elementary school in Dayton; a $1.5 million study of crowding at Bushy Park Elementary; continued development of the western regional park in Glenwood and construction of a senior center there.

"Despite the lack of support for the education surcharge from the state delegates who represent citizens in that [Bushy Park] school district, I feel strongly" that the study, plus the new elementary, should go forward, said Robey, a Democrat.

Dels. Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller, both Republicans, opposed the $1-a-square-foot surcharge on new homes, as they did Robey's first proposal for a higher real estate transfer tax to pay for schools.

Yesterday, Bates said the Bushy Park study may be a waste of money because enrollment growth countywide is slowing and the worst crowding is in middle and high schools. She said the new western elementary, which she supports, may resolve the problem.

"I question whether we need to spend $1.4 million when this new school will take away overcrowding. I wonder if that's a waste of money," Bates said, adding that Howard County's schools, even those 30 years old, are in great shape compared with those elsewhere in Maryland.

Western county Councilman Allan H. Kittleman and Councilman Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City, both Republicans, disagreed, saying they feel the Bushy Park study is needed.

"We need to do something there. The study makes sense," Merdon said. He added that although he is "disappointed the new northeast school must be delayed, Robey "made the right decision to fund the western school."

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone of North Laurel-Savage and Councilman Ken Ulman of west Columbia, both Democrats, said the western county is benefiting from Robey's sense of public service.

"It's very frustrating to see the lion's share of this budget going to projects in areas where elected leaders have not supported it," said Ulman, who said he wants Running Brook Elementary in Wilde Lake renovated. "The county executive is being a big person here."

Guzzone said he wants money to renovate Guilford Elementary, though Courtney Watson, chairman of the school board, said deferring $3.3 million in renovations may mean only one project can be done.

"I think the real story here is that Jim Robey's taking a broad perspective on the needs all over the county. That's the right thing to do," Guzzone said.

Watson, who became active in county politics as an advocate for more classrooms in the northeastern county, said, "The numbers justify the western school being built first." She also defended the study of Bushy Park, saying more space will be needed to relieve crowding and for all-day kindergarten.

"The citizens in the west are having children very fast," she said.

Last year, Robey proposed a $148.5 million capital budget with $56 million for schools. The county got $9.4 million in state school construction funding.

This year, state officials have recommended $4.3 million for schools, though county school officials hope to get more.

The county Spending Affordability Committee recommended authorization of $80 million in bond borrowing for fiscal 2005, and Robey is asking for $78.4 million from that source. He would add $42 million from the new tax and $5.4 million in cash, plus money from the highways excise tax, grants and the water and sewer funds.

The County Council has until June to approve a capital and an operating budget, which is scheduled for release April 19.

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