Record capital budget in view

Robey proposes $336.6 million plan with school projects as his top priority


In proposing a record $336.6 million capital budget for the coming year -- a 39 percent increase over last year -- Howard County Executive James N. Robey said school projects remain his primary interest, even though he trimmed requests for school renovations.

"My highest priority continues to be to build the schools Howard County needs to maintain our education system as the best in the state," he said Friday, suggesting that an extra $5 million expected in state school construction money could be used to help fill the gap.

The overall budget grew mainly because of water, sewer and road projects financed from self-supporting utility and excise taxes.

The utility and highway projects account for $135.2 million of the total, covering such things as a $25 million project to reduce nitrogen emissions from the county's wastewater treatment plant in Savage and replacement of a major water pipeline in Elkridge, said James N. Irvin, the county public works director.

Also, $10.2 million borrowed against excise taxes paid by developers would be used to widen Marriottsville Road to four lanes from U.S. 40 North past Interstate 70. Irvin said that developers with projects along the road will pay to widen the often-clogged two-lane road north to Route 99.

Robey highlighted the county's continuing effort to build schools and renovate older ones in announcing his plan, which is subject to County Council review.

He included $80 million for school construction, compared with the $100 million that the school board requested, but noted that a General Assembly conference committee March 29 recommended sending another $5 million to Howard.

Missing was about $9 million for renovation projects plus money to convert the old, and now empty, Cedar Lane School for handicapped students in Harper's Choice into a facility for community and school uses.

"Even if we get that money from the state, there's still going to be a significant shortfall," for renovations, said Joshua Kaufman, the school board chairman.

"What it looks like now is we will have enough funds to complete all the ongoing construction efforts," he said, but that funding for some renovations is "questionable."

Board member Diane Mikulis said: "We asked for what we needed. I'd like to see the money stay for renovations."

Courtney Watson, another board member, said the board will push for the County Council to restore the renovation funds.

Robey also included money to finish building two elementary schools, in Dayton and in Ellicott City and to build a replacement for Bushy Park Elementary.

He said the county can borrow another $8 million for schools based on revenue from a surcharge tax on new homes, which the General Assembly approved two years ago. That would provide $5 million to provide more full-day kindergarten at county schools and $2 million to equip an auto repair facility at the former vocational-technical high school next to school board headquarters.

"That's critical," said school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. "We have 100 kids signed up for that program."

Robey said $1 million could be added to the extra $5 million in state money to renovate Worthington Elementary School and Clarksville Middle School.

"It came through loud and clear to me in the budget hearings" that those two buildings need help, he said. "I think I have an obligation to make recommendations based on what I hear from the community."

Board member Patricia Gordon said Robey's advocacy for the two schools "puts us on the spot because we have many other projects that are certainly just as needy." She mentioned Stevens Forest Elementary in Columbia as a school that is "getting shabby."

Cousin said the system would be able to do the Worthington project and do some work in Clarksville if the added state money comes through.

Ginger Segala, PTA president at Worthington, said she expects the board to approve the work on the building.

"The biggest problem is that the roof is leaking, and it can't just be fixed because the HVAC [air handling] systems are on the roof," Segala said.

She said new wiring and other improvements also are needed.

Regina Thyberg, PTA president at Clarksville, said her 27-year-old building has never been renovated and needs it badly. She said Robey's statement gives her hope, "but honestly we're still cautious because we've been overlooked many times."

To help pay for the projects, the executive included $21.2 million in surplus cash and asked for authorization to sell $90.4 million in bonds -- matching a ceiling for borrowing recommended by the county's Spending Affordability Committee.

"The [bond] rating agencies love to see it when you can budget cash," Robey said.

The executive also included $6.6 million for a new firehouse in West Friendship and $3 million for a replacement station in Wilde Lake, but he delayed a fire station in Glenwood.

County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican, said he welcomes the new station and is happy none is proposed for Glenwood.

"It has to be done," Feaga said about West Friendship. "I really don't feel we need one at Glenwood."

He said widening Marriottsville Road also is a priority. "It's gridlock there in the mornings," Feaga said.

Also included in Robey's proposal is $6.9 million to help pay for two new structures and one renovated building at Howard Community College, $1 million to buy land for a new Ellicott City library building and $1.4 million to help pay for a new and larger Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

The County Council's public hearing on the capital budget is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 20 at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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