School plans remain on hold

Harkins refuses to budge after council OKs limit on building in crowded areas

`I have a fiduciary responsibility'

Slutzky offers amendment in hopes of a compromise

April 18, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford Executive James M. Harkins said he will hold off on plans for a new middle and high school complex near Bel Air after the County Council's passage of a bill last week to limit homebuilding in crowded school districts.

"I want to do Patterson Mill," Harkins said of the proposed $42.6 million facility, which is designed to eliminate much of the county's problem with crowded classrooms.

"We need to do that school," he said, "but I have a fiduciary responsibility that I take seriously."

Harkins said he needs time to determine his response to the council's passage of a bill Tuesday night that would curtail preliminary approval of new homes in more than half the county.

The council voted 6-1 to change the county's adequate public facilities laws to halt the preliminary approval of new homes in any school district with a school that exceeds 105 percent of its enrollment capacity.

The bill would replace legislation passed by the council six months ago that limited residential development in school districts with a school exceeding 115 percent of its capacity.

Lance C. Miller, a Republican representing the northern part of the county, cast the only vote in opposition to the bill.

Harkins announced plans for the Patterson Mill complex in June. At that time, he said the county was prepared to move forward with the construction even without state aid, which traditionally accounts for about half the cost of building and furnishing a new school.

But when he submitted his budget for the fiscal year beginning in July there was no funding for the Patterson Mill project, which is being counted on to ease crowding at a half-dozen schools.

Council members saw the move as a tactic to force them to kill the adequate public facilities bill. They accused Harkins of playing politics with the budget and the quality of education in the county.

The administration's response was that it was being fiscally responsible, saying it was concerned that the proposed change in the adequate public facilities law would jeopardize future revenue needed to pay the debt service on the bond to pay for Patterson Mill.

In hopes of breaking a logjam between the council and the administration, Councilman Richard C. Slutzky offered an amendment to the new adequate public facilities bill, a sunset provision that would cause the measure to expire in 2007. Slutzky is a Republican who represents Aberdeen.

Under his provision, the law would return to the 115 percent trigger in June 2007 unless the council changes the law.

"I presented it with the hope that there would be some compromise on the part of the administration," said Slutzky. "It was to give the administration some room to be flexible."

"But nobody has said anything one way or the other," Slutzky said. "I've not heard from anyone."

Harkins said Thursday that he has about 20 days to consider his response to the bill.

He said he wants to use that time to talk with schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas and meet with county Treasurer John Scotten Jr. and the county's financial adviser before making a decision.

Harkins said he also wants to read a new $8,500 study by economist Anirban Basu and the Towson University School of Business and Economics on the economic impact on the county of the new adequate public facilities law.

The study, which was paid for by the county and presented to the council last week, concluded that the new law would have dire consequences on the county's finances in the future.

"Indeed, construction in the county's growth envelope comes to a near halt" in four years, Basu wrote in the report. He said the measure would cut into the county's revenue from income, property and other taxes.

He said that to the extent that homebuilding continued, much of it would take place in less densely populated areas and areas with excess school capacity, including the Joppatowne, Havre de Grace and North Harford school districts. The North Harford school district covers most of the northern half of the county.

Basu said this would result in longer commutes and lost farmland.

He predicted that the county would lose nearly $13 million a year in revenue starting in 2008 as a result of the new law.

Over a nine-year period, he said, the county would lose $94.8 million.

The change in the adequate public facilities law does not apply to developments of five homes or fewer.

Representatives of the homebuilding industry filled the council chamber Tuesday night and testified that the new bill was not needed. They argued that it would push up the price of housing to a level that students graduating from Harford schools would not be able to afford to live in the county, and would result in layoffs in construction and related industries.

In voting for the adequate public facility law, council President Robert S. Wagner expressed doubt that the negative economic impact of the bill would be as great as predicted.

Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican representing Bel Air, said Basu's predictions were based on a belief that the council would not change the adequate public facility law again in the future. He said this was not a fair assumption considering that the target trigger had already been changed twice over the past year.

"Our schools are in deplorable condition. They are falling down around our ears," Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council, said as he cast his vote for the bill.

Parents packed the council chamber over the past year demanding that something be done about schools, some of which have 25 percent to nearly 30 percent more students than they were designed to handle.

They argued that school crowding was a safety issue and hindered students' chances of receiving a quality education.

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