Plan for schools unveiled

6 key projects focus of capital budget

April 23, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

On a sunny weekday morning in front of Bel Air High School, County Executive David R. Craig presented an ambitious school construction plan, to the delight of parents and school officials: the completion of some of Harford's most sorely needed projects within the next four years.

With the backdrop of portable classrooms and the high school's decaying facade, the $218 million plan resonated with education leaders as the culmination of years of unfulfilled promises by past administrations. But Craig now faces a more daunting task: convincing a skeptical County Council that the multiyear plan can be paid for.

Calling it the "most aggressive capital improvement plan in the county's history," Craig said the projects cannot wait. But as the executive presented his proposed budget for next year, members of the council were saying the administration has yet to explain where the money will come from.

FOR THE RECORD - A chart about the proposed capital budget for schools that ran in the April 23 Harford section incorrectly listed proposed spending for the replacement of Bel Air High School. The proposal calls for no money to be allocated in fiscal 2007; $22.27 million in 2008 and again in 2009; and $26.83 million in 2010.
The Sun regrets the error.

The discussion is likely to evolve into a broader conversation about how the county plans to equip itself for a burst of growth in the next few years as thousands of jobs land at and around Aberdeen Proving Ground as a result of the military's base realignment and closure process, known as BRAC. All county departments are expecting a strain on services and have been identifying key infrastructure needs; federal money will cover only a percentage of the costs - and none of the school plans.

"When it comes down to showing me how this will be paid for, five years out, it comes up lacking," said Council President Robert S. Wagner, a Republican.

The bulk of the costs associated with Craig's capital program for schools would go to six high-profile projects - new buildings for Bel Air and Edgewood high schools, renovations at Joppatowne and Deerfield elementary schools, an addition to Aberdeen High, and a new elementary school in the Route 543 corridor.

"The fact is, we have to get this done, and we have to get it done now, not just for BRAC, but the children we have here now," Craig said.

The proposed budget includes a breakdown of how the initial stages would be funded beginning next year. But only $8 million would be spent then, hardly providing a glimpse of how the administration plans to pay the other $210 million.

The schools plan is the centerpiece of a capital budget that sets aside $183 million for countywide projects next year but would be followed in fiscal year 2008 by a significant jump to $358 million. Last year's capital budget was $153 million.

On Tuesday, Craig said the region's economy has been strong in recent years and he expects Harford to "grow into" its increasing needs.

Ann C. Helton, Craig's Democratic challenger in November's election, accused him of making "rash promises."

"I don't think anybody under any circumstances believes that we will grow the revenue to reach that level of funding," she said. "He has said everything that needs to be done is a priority, and I don't think that's a balanced approach at all."

The burden of paying for the projects, at least initially, will be squarely on the county. Craig has pledged to "forward-fund" them in hopes of recouping state dollars later. The Patterson Mill middle and high school complex was also "forward-funded," but in the recently concluded legislative session, Harford only received $2 million of the $8 million it had sought. The difference will have to be made up by the county in next year's budget.

To fund Patterson Mill, the county approved a new revenue stream - an impact fee, collected when new homes were built, that would be funneled toward the project. Also last year, the council agreed to funnel a specific portion of property taxes toward replacing Bel Air High.

Republican Councilman Richard C. Slutzky said new mechanisms likely will have to be introduced to fund the new Edgewood building and others. The council had sought a "menu" of options in addition to the impact fee, including higher recordation taxes, but was rebuffed by the county's General Assembly delegation last year.

"What revenue streams are going to be applied to pay for this enormous bond obligation?" said Slutzky. "Are you going to tell people that you're going to raise their taxes? If we haven't been able to secure other revenue streams, how are you going to bond this money out without telling people they may have to have higher taxes?"

Even Cindy Mumby, the president of the Bel Air PTSA, has her doubts. She was one of the parents who spoke glowingly about the proposal last week alongside Craig and called the school the "poster child" for the county's aging schools.

"In the past, we've dealt with the crisis of the moment," she said. "Now a plan has been put in place to address those long-term needs. For Harford County, that's a landmark.

"But the second part of that, and the certainly the toughest, is how are we going to pay for this?"

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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