Tight budget limits choices

Commissioners OK funds to design new senior center in South Carroll


Although budget constraints loom, the county commissioners have vowed to move forward with some long planned projects. But they are preparing to sacrifice others.

The board voted unanimously last week to spend $545,087 on architectural designs for the South Carroll Senior Center and an adjoining community gym. The $3 million project will include a 24,500-square-foot center for senior activities and a 6,800- square-foot gymnasium.

Groundbreaking is scheduled next year on 10 acres near Mineral Hill and Oakland roads in Eldersburg.

"We have identified some projects that can move through the budget process," Ted Zaleski, county director of management and budget, told the commissioners. "We are evaluating the money available and your priorities, but that does not mean nothing will be sacrificed."

Officials said the South Carroll center will become a community hub used by many generations. The commissioners have promised South Carroll seniors relief from the crowding in the 60-year-old former schoolhouse that has served as a center for about two decades.

"Your interest in this project is clear, and there has been no wavering," Zaleski said. "But this will not happen on everything we are doing. There is no scenario that gets us anywhere near funding everything needed."

The county has plans for three new parks and three new schools, including a $60 million high school in North Carroll.

How much the state would contribute to those projects is uncertain.

The county also is planning to renovate a former store for a new North Carroll Senior Center and is considering building a firefighter training facility.

Officials expect to break ground next month on a $3 million residential drug treatment facility in Sykesville, a project that has been in the works for six years. The board also remains committed to its farmland preservation program.

"It could cost us 50 percent more if we put some of these projects on the shelf and bring them out two years from now," said Ralph Green, director of the county Department of General Services. He said he has worked closely with budget administrators to determine which projects would move forward.

Until state legislators reach a decision on a proposed reduction of the Homestead Tax Credit - which could create a $2 million shortfall next year and as much as $16 in five years - the revenue picture remains cloudy, officials said.

"Aren't we in a blind alley as far as ability to do capital projects?" Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said. "We are not in control of how much we will have to spend. We can't make decisions today that back us into a corner tomorrow and force us to raise the property tax."

The proposed 2 percent reduction died in the House of Delegates, but the Senate was expected to pass an amended version that excluded municipalities from the reduction.

"It will go back to the House, where it will probably languish," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Republican who represents Carroll and Frederick counties.

Sen. Larry E. Haines, leader of the Carroll delegation, was more optimistic. He expected the bill to be back in the House late last week, which would be ample time for reconsideration.

"Anything can happen," said Haines, a Republican. "I should not have let the House file a separate bill."

Frank Johnson, the county's legislative liaison, says a bill is not dead "until midnight on the day the session ends."

Zaleski, who conducted two days of public budget work sessions with the commissioners late last week, assured the board that "we are not moving forward blindly.

"The process will never be perfect, but we are not going to back ourselves into a corner," he said. "We won't knowingly create a situation that we can't comfortably pull off."

The work sessions help the commissioners and their staff set spending priorities and a five-year plan for capital projects.

"We don't want to be put in a position where we have to raise taxes by default," said Minnich, a Republican. "There are a lot of moving points here. Most people have no idea the cost to replace a little metal shed at a treatment plant that most people in the county won't benefit from."

Minnich was referring to the nearly $800,000 the county will spend to build storage space and install new equipment at the Hampstead District Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Republican Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said the board is committed to working with available revenues.

"Forget about raising taxes," she said. "We will work with what we have."


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