Leaders claim politics at root of school issue

Patterson Mill backers criticize Harkins' refusal to put project in budget

`It's not sound government'

Some on council blame enrollment bill dispute

April 04, 2004|By Ted Shelsby and Lane Harvey Brown | Ted Shelsby and Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Harford Executive James M. Harkins is playing politics with his new budget proposal and it is threatening the quality of education for public school students, according to several members of the County Council. But John J. O'Neill Jr., the county's director of administration, defended Harkins from the charges.

O'Neill said plans for the new Patterson Mill Middle-High School could be put back in the budget if administrative officials can be assured there will be money to pay the annual debt service. He said the county would also need $2 million to $3 million a year to operate the school.

"He wants to build the school," O'Neill said. "We are looking for, grasping for ways to do it. People say we are playing politics, but we are being very frugal and conservative."

Some County Council members expressed doubt over the administration's position.

"He's playing politics with our students," Councilman Robert G. Cassilly said of Harkins' move not to include funding for the school near Bel Air that is designed to reduce crowding at six schools. "I think this is politics and it's not sound government."

In eliminating money for the project, Harkins expressed concern about the county's ability in future years to pay the $3 million to $3.5 million a year debt service on bonds to pay for the complex.

"It is extremely disappointing that he [Harkins] is using Patterson Mill as leverage to get us to back off from reducing the adequate public facilities figure to 105 percent," said Councilman Dion F. Guthrie.

Guthrie was referring to a bill pending in the council that would halt preliminary approval of new homes in any school district with a school that exceeds its enrollment capacity by more than 5 percent.

Under terms of a bill passed by the council in October, preliminary approval is halted in school districts with a school exceeding 115 percent of its capacity.

"I think it is irresponsible, unnecessary and shortsighted for him to cut out school programs because of the council's willingness to go to 105 percent on the APF bill," Cassilly said. "My view is that we should do what is right for our constituents, not for the lobbyists in the construction industry who make big campaign contributions."

O'Neill expressed the administration's concern that stopping home construction could cost the county up to $23 million a year in lost revenue.

He said about 8,500 homes have preliminary approval and could be built even if the new adequate public facilities law is passed. "This is enough to keep the industry working for four years, but I need to pay the debt service for 20 years," he said.

"The debt service on Patterson Mill is probably $3 million a year," Cassilly said. "If you are not willing to find $3 million a year in a half-billion [dollar] budget, you're just not interested in a project."

Harkins announced in June that he would move ahead on the construction of the $42.6 million Patterson Mill school complex even if he had to do it without state assistance. The state normally pays about half the cost of building and furnishing a new school.

"We desperately need it," James Richardson, county director of human resources, said of the Patterson Mill project at the time. "There is no debate. It has to be done."

Harkins' decision was in response to parents who complained that schools handling 15 percent to nearly 30 percent more students than their designed capacity represented a safety issue and jeopardized the quality of education.

Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the Harford County legislative delegation, said he could understand the county executive's cautious approach considering the budget situation in Annapolis.

"The budget situation here is still very fluid," Glassman said from his Annapolis office. "He [Harkins] has to keep an eye on things to see if the county needs to take additional cuts. I can understand him being cautious. I think it is warranted."

Council President Robert S. Wagner said he had little doubt that Harkins' decision on Patterson Mill was related to the council's adequate public facilities bill. "There is a good deal of political maneuvering going on, and I wish it wasn't.

"He is pulling back a project that is near and dear to the hearts of most people on the council," Wagner said. "This is not the way to deal with them. It won't work. There is no doubt in my mind now that we will go to 105 percent."

Councilman Richard C. Slutzky said he would introduce an amendment to the adequate public facilities bill at Tuesday's council session that would expire the law in 2007 if there is evidence that it was cutting into county revenue. "We would go back to 115 percent," he said.

"The way to get out of this issue," Slutzky said, "is to build Patterson Mill. It would reduce the enrollment at other schools, and there would be no need to shut down the development of new homes."

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