Capital requests greeted with optimism Schools, roads may get funding

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With county tax revenue expected to rise and housing construction on the upturn, Carroll officials say they are optimistic about beginning several major capital projects in the next fiscal year.

In fact, the county may be able to pay for projects that have been delayed by the budget crises of the last several years, officials said.

"We need to do a lot of catching up right now," Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said Friday.

The $67 million "wish list" submitted by county department heads for fiscal year 1995 reflects a 105.5 percent increase over the $32.7 million capital budget approved for fiscal 1994.

The county Planning Commission is considering the capital budget requests and will recommend by mid-December which projects should be funded. The county commissioners will make final decisions by the end of May.

"Since everyone took such a cut last year, I guess they're all hoping for a little more [in their budgets]," Planning Commission member Louis J. Pecoraro said.

Several major projects are proposed for fiscal 1995, which begins July 1, including a new Oklahoma Road middle school in South Carroll, an addition to Taneytown Elementary, repairs to numerous county roads, a new radio communications system and a new library at Carroll Community College.

Last March, 500 parents and students packed Sykesville Middle School to demand that the county and state agree to build the school earlier than 1998, when it had been scheduled.

Sykesville Middle was 202 students over its capacity of 855 last week, school officials said.

Marian Sleeper, president of the Parent Teacher Association at Sykesville Middle, said her daughter, Amanda, now a high school freshman, complained about crowded middle school classrooms.

Pupils found it hard to get individual attention from a teacher when there were more than 30 students in a class or laboratory, Mrs. Sleeper said.

"There's just physically not room for all the kids in the school," she said Friday.

A $12.5 million school is scheduled to be built in fiscal 1995. The county is counting on the state to pay about half -- $6.4 million. State officials have not made a decision, but Mr. Pecoraro, a former Carroll principal, said, "It looks good from what we've heard."

If the state doesn't contribute, the county would build the school with its own money, Mrs. Gouge and Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Elmer C. Lippy said Friday.

Other school projects

School officials plan a $6 million addition to Taneytown Elementary to accommodate 200 more students, bringing enrollment to 600. The state has agreed to pay $2.8 million, said Gary L. Horst, capital budget supervisor in the county Department of Management and Budget.

The state also has agreed to pay $6.8 million toward the $10 million cost of a new 51,000-square-foot library at Carroll Community College, he said.

Roads projects

All three commissioners said they think roads projects should be a priority in 1995. The roads budget was cut in recent years to make up shortfalls in other areas.

The Public Works Department has requested $5.5 million for 110 projects. The department received $2.8 million this year.

In a recent survey, Carroll roads got a "D" rating on a scale of A to F, with F denoting the worst condition.

Radio upgrade possible

Emergency operations officials have asked the county for a $6.1 million upgrade to the county's radio system.

The existing communications system, used for emergency personnel and to dispatch county workers, was built in the 1960s and is obsolete, said Howard "Buddy" Redman, chief of Carroll's Bureau of Emergency Operations Services.

A new system would offer more channels, be more reliable and allow personnel to work more efficiently, he said. He has asked for $1.5 million in fiscal 1995 to begin system construction.

Mr. Dell said there is "a slim chance" the money would be spent next year.

"I don't see it [the new system] as an absolute necessity," he said.

TC Mr. Lippy said he's not sure the system should be built and wants to hear more from volunteer firefighters and others who would use it.

"It certainly is a high-priority item" for a decision, he added.

L Mrs. Gouge and Mr. Pecoraro said the system should be built.

"I think that's long overdue," Mr. Pecoraro said.

Overall requests up

Carroll departments and agencies have submitted $67.3 million in capital requests for fiscal 1995. Even with a positive growth outlook, it's not likely all the projects will be funded, Mr. Horst said.

The county probably will be able to spend about $43.3 million on capital projects, or 64 percent of the total requested, he said.

Carroll is spending $32.6 million in the current fiscal year, 73 percent of the $44.7 million requested.

The fiscal 1994 budget, adopted last spring, reflected a more positive Carroll economic outlook than in the previous three years years, Mr. Horst said. The commissioners did not increase taxes, approved raises for employees and agreed to a few major building projects, including a new middle school in New Windsor.

The county lost $17 million in state money from fiscal 1991 to fiscal 1993 due to state budget cuts and was forced to trim programs. The capital budget in fiscal 1993 was $23.6 million, 51 percent of the $46.4 million requested.

How much to borrow?

When making his capital budget projections, Mr. Horst relied on a model developed by Alex. Brown & Sons to figure how much money the county can afford to borrow through general obligation bonds.

Carroll can sell about $17 million in bonds in fiscal 1995, which would be about 3 percent of its assessable tax base, he said. The county issued about $10 million in general obligation bonds in fiscal 1994.

Mr. Horst predicted that county tax revenues would grow annually from 8 percent in 1994 to 9.25 percent in 2000. He characterized his projection as conservative.

Carroll's revenue growth from income and property taxes is not expected to return to the levels of the 1980s, when annual growth was 12 percent to 14 percent, said Jeffrey K. Topper, operating budget and revenue supervisor for the county.

The upswing in residential housing starts is encouraging, though, he said. In July and August, the first two months of this fiscal year, builders applied for 219 permits, 66 more than in the same period last year.

"Things are picking up," Mr. Topper said. "It looks like, economically, we are coming out of the woods."

Mr. Dell was more cautious: "I'm not optimistic myself. We'll probably be a little better off." He said he worries about further state budget cuts.

Mrs. Gouge, first vice president of the Maryland Association of Counties, said she thinks the counties will escape the deep state cuts of the last three years.

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