In a tough time, council wrestles with projects plan

Members mull wisdom of delayed school construction, maintenance

March 15, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

One County Council member wanted to know whether a 100-seat addition planned for Bellows Spring Elementary School in Ellicott City could be pushed back a year if some children could be redistricted to empty seats at nearby Ilchester Elementary.

Another wondered whether renovations at school board headquarters can be delayed.

Meanwhile, others asked if the county should spend more next fiscal year to take advantage of lower, recession-driven construction prices.

County leaders are pondering a range of possibilities as the coming spring brings annual budget dilemmas, magnified this year by shrinking revenues.

At a Monday meeting in the government's temporary headquarters in Columbia, council members met with school officials and planning board members. They conducted an informal discussion on priorities amid the $374 million in capital budget requests for fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1.

"This helps us have a deeper understanding," said council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty.

The requests are lower than last year, because there are fewer water and sewer projects. But economic uncertainty means choices are harder to make, officials say.

The council met with the planning board last year to get an idea of how the board evaluated requests. County Executive Ken Ulman is to present his capital spending plan by April 1. Ulman's operating budget is to follow April 20, and the council has until June 1 to make any changes and adopt both budgets. Residents will have their last chance to comment on the spending plans at public hearings on March 18 and 19.

Courtney Watson, who represents parts of Ellicott City and Elkridge, marveled at how Bellows Spring Elementary has become so crowded that it needs an addition. The county opened another school, Veterans Elementary, in the same region last year, and so many new students are coming from development along the U.S. 1 corridor that another building is under discussion.

Sigaty said the former Faulkner Ridge School could be reopened and that land is available for another school in Hickory Ridge.

Watson, a former school board member, suggested that if the school board redistricted, empty seats at Ilchester could be filled and the addition at Bellows Spring could be pushed off a year. That could allow $810,000 to be used for something more pressing - like one of two dance studios planned at Hammond and Centennial high schools next year. This year, she suggested, final decisions could magnify the importance of $810,000, even in a $95 million school budget request.

Jennifer Terrasa, who represents the southeastern part of the county, said she has heard that the recession may be driving private-school students back into public classrooms. But school officials said they have no hard evidence of that.

Calvin Ball, who represents the northeast portion of the county, wondered whether now is the time to forge ahead, taking advantage of price cuts from contractors.

"Maybe we should seize the day," he said.

Watson disagreed.

"We are going to have more projects than we can afford," she said.

School board Vice Chair Ellen Flynn Giles warned about what often happens in tight times - postponing renovations and maintenance.

"Because we didn't do systems renovations, we got caught spending five times more [later]," she said.

The board has decided to postpone renovations at the old Cedar Lane School in West Columbia, as well as plans for an oft-delayed school system maintenance and warehouse building.

Still, facilities other than schools need attention, , such as parks, community centers, Howard Community College, the new Miller library in Ellicott City, and fire stations.

Planning board chairman David Grabowski said his panel views construction of the proposed Robinson Nature Center, the North Laurel Community Center and park, and the first portion of Blandair Park as priorities, along with allowing a private tennis organization to build in what will be Troy Hill Park along U.S. 1.

Sigaty said the meeting was important, even though the council doesn't yet know Ulman's priorities.

"Having a less formal discussion helps us to learn and understand," Sigaty said after the hourlong session.

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