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Library projects future needs


As the Robey administration mulls over how to cope with record requests for school construction money, the Howard County Library Board is adding its own - two new libraries in the next decade.

It's another sign of the county's strain to keep up with the expensive needs of an expanding, high-income population.

Howard's population has increased sevenfold since 1960, and grew from 187,328 to 249,000 in the last decade. And although planners expect it to grow a relatively slow 22 percent by 2020, County Executive James N. Robey finds himself constantly playing catch-up - from the $27 million emergency radio system under construction to a $41 million 12th high school that peeked over the budget horizon this month.

With two major mixed-use developments scheduled to add more than 2,000 homes and 2 million square feet of commercial and office space in the county's southern quadrant along Route 216, the Library Board wants to open a 25,000-square-foot facility in Fulton/Scaggsville by 2006.

A second new library, in the fast-growing Interstate 70 corridor near West Friendship, would come five years later, according to the board's request and the library system's strategic plan for the next decade.

"Growth is going to take place in those areas, and ... [the board feels] it is really important to put this in the minds of the public and the Department of Public Works," said Norma Hill, the library director .

The county is trying to cope with a seemingly endless list of ever more expensive school construction projects, even as officials look to what they believe will be a slowing of growth and homebuilding in about 10 years. This year, John R. O'Rourke, the county's new school superintendent, requested $4 million in planning funds for a high school as the county is beginning construction of Reservoir High in Fulton.

The need for classrooms statewide has added $8 million to the county's bill to pay for demand-driven higher construction costs.

"We have some major competing interests here, don't we?" said Robey, who is dealing with a school construction request that's $18 million higher than last year's.

Major new requests such as the one for the 12th high school also make it difficult for Robey to stick to his plan to make the long-term capital budget meaningful, instead of endlessly postponing items such as libraries for such higher priority projects as schools or the emergency radio system.

"It's one of the things we've struggled with," said James M. Irvin, county public works chief, referring to new, expensive high-priority projects. "That's been the fundamental problem we've had."

More frustrating for county officials is the lack of confidence they have in their ability to predict major expenses through school enrollment projections.

"It is almost impossible to find people who have any level of confidence in those numbers," County Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung said this week at a council work session on a new General Plan.

Two years ago, the county was fighting over whether to build an 11th high school in Fulton, and before its outside walls are up, officials are confronted with the proposal for a 12th.

It's not as if the county has been neglecting libraries. Small branches were opened during the last decade in Elkridge and Savage, and last month the county opened a large branch on Route 97 in Glenwood in the western county.

The county has begun a yearlong, $5.1 million renovation and expansion of the central branch on South Entrance Road in Columbia.

While the central branch is closed, the east Columbia library, built in 1994, serves all of Columbia.

Also in the capital budget - but unfunded, Irvin said - is a $4.9 million renovation and expansion of the Miller branch library on Frederick Road in Ellicott City.

The capital budget calls for an $850,000 appropriation next year for a feasibility study to see how much renovation is needed and whether 5,000 square feet could be added to the building, which quadrupled in size after its last expansion in 1985.

No price tag has been placed on either of the proposed libraries for Fulton/Scaggsville and West Friendship.

"It's a matter of priorities," Robey said, though he has repeated often that in Howard, as in most counties, schools and public safety come first.

The executive also has said often that the county can't afford to build all the classrooms requested as well as fund other demands.

Charles H. McLaughlin, president of the Library Board, is hopeful, nevertheless.

"Based upon our experience, the library has received incredible support from the county executive since I've been around," McLaughlin said. "I wouldn't want to have their job, divvying up the pie."

Hill said libraries help educate the public, as schools do, and deserve support.

"The bottom line is that libraries are heavily used," she said. "I'm going to be pushing as hard as I can."

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