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Letters to the editor

The Baltimore Sun

Renovation option is not a good one

School officials met with concerned citizens at Mount Hebron High School last month regarding options to address the aging facility. The school officials clearly preferred a $50 million renovation. They presented other options, including a new building at the Mount Hebron site for approximately $80 million.

The meeting offered an opportunity for written questions for the officials to answer. At this time, we learned the school officials have not performed a life cycle cost analysis of any viable option, nor do they intend to. We believe this is fiscally irresponsible.

The $50 million renovation option leaves many areas of the school untouched and does not come close to meeting the state of Maryland's current educational specifications. In addition, the school has sewage problems of an unknown cause in the science wing, unexplained mold in the English wing, small hallways (some measuring only 6 feet wide), and lacks conformance with current safety standards. The proposed renovation for $50 million does not provide an adequate educational nor structurally sound facility for our children.

Therefore the option to renovate is not a good use of our taxes.

The school officials are quick to point out that building a new school would be an additional $30 million. However, there are many mitigating factors. The $50 million figure is misleading because it does not allow for overruns caused by unknown issues inherent in any renovation project. How many of us have gone to fix an electrical switch or replace a leaky faucet only to find more work and expense was required than originally anticipated? This is especially true if we're connecting a new system to outdated systems. This potential for overruns could easily be an additional $7.5 [million] to $10 million. Another potential cost in renovation is the unexplained sewage and mold issues at the school.

Because these are health issues, they must be addressed when the cause is determined. This will add more cost to the renovation. Finally, according to the school system, the state of Maryland would contribute an additional $5 million for a new school. These mitigating factors considerably reduce the difference in cost between building a new school versus the proposed renovations.

The investment to build a new school gives Howard County a new facility opening at capacity with new infrastructure that will last many years. It gets a school that meets current educational needs, health and safety standards, and technology upgrades.

Now is the time to hold those making the decision to renovate or build at Mount Hebron fiscally responsible to the Howard County taxpayers.

Terry and Deanna Trask Ellicott City

Town Center should go up, not out

Think up - not out.

As the various factions in Howard County contemplate plans for Columbia's "downtown," one thing becomes clearer every day. Building in Town Center should be focused on "up."

With the limited amount of land available, building "up" is absolutely the way to go: both from an aesthetic and practical standpoint. As much as many of the factions want to keep the lakefront area pedestrian-friendly and assure that the vistas remain pleasing to the eye, one must also look at the financial aspect of the entire project.

The idea of height restrictions, as proposed by some county leaders, is not without merit, but who is to say what those restrictions should be? Just because the tallest building in Town Center is 150 feet high doesn't mean that taller buildings can't be compatible with their surroundings.

General Growth brought on WCI to build a large lakefront living unit, and WCI, which is among the largest high-rise condominium builders in the world, proposed its 23-story tower. I'm sure WCI's business pro-forma was done with care, and if a 16-story building or even a 30-story building made sense that's what the company would have recommended.

Overlooked in the fray is the positive economic input to Howard County, and Columbia, of high-rise buildings. There are 162 condominium units in WCI's building. A quick tally of the asking prices shows that the average unit will sell for around $900,000.

That translates into $1,458,000 in transfer taxes into the county coffers. In addition, there would be $1,924,000 in yearly real estate taxes paid to the county year after year. The Columbia Association would gain $495,720 a year - again year after year (and those numbers would rise as values rise).

With ever increasing costs to provide local services as the county grows, that kind of income should be warmly welcomed by government officials and taxpayers alike.

Those numbers reflect a buying population whose demographics are optimum for any area: mature people who normally don't have school-age children; affluent folks who will bring large disposable income to the area, which means increased revenue for restaurants and other retail establishments.

For those concerned about increased traffic congestion, keep in mind that a great many occupants of the tower will spend only part of the year here. Many buyers have second homes at the shore or in warmer-climate areas during the winter months.

If those 162 buyers spent the same amount on single-family homes, it would mean that a minimum of 486 acres (including mandatory open-space areas) would be used to accommodate them. The lot that will house the condominium tower is less than 1 acre in size!

With careful planning, it's also possible to retain the lakefront vistas and, in fact, improve on what we have now, aesthetically. It's not an either/or scenario - we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Let's stop bashing this kind of proposal and start embracing it. It makes all the sense in the world and is the epitome of the oft-heard phrase "Smart Growth."

Dave Leonard Columbia

Ulman appointments earn high praise

It's very heartening to see our new county executive, Ken Ulman, making so many exciting appointments to his new administration. I have watched with growing enthusiasm the list of persons Ken is bringing into the county, and the many fine county folks he is retaining, as well, to move us forward.

With Marsha McLaughlin staying as our planning director and Joan Kennedy coming in as our new legislative liaison in Annapolis, Ken shows his respect for their strengths and talents. From Dr. C. Vernon Gray returning to serve his county again, to Dr. Peter Beilenson, with his splendid record of achievements in Baltimore, Howard County surely benefits from Executive Ulman's thoughtful and positive actions.

The list of persons staying in the administration, and the newly arrived to work with them, shows again the diversity in Ken Ulman's choices that will keep our county special and strong.

Carole Fisher Ellicott City

Life cycle analysis should be done

Along with a few hundred other concerned people, we attended a presentation recently on options for the renovation or replacement of Mount Hebron High School. Anyone with knowledge of Hebron would agree that physical plant changes are necessary. At the end of the meeting, a group of students showed a very compelling video supporting that fact.

Several options were presented to "fix" Hebron, but the focus was on two. One was a $50 million renovation and the other was an $80 million replacement. We were informed that central office's recommendation would be the renovation. Regardless of which solution is best, given the magnitude of the expenditure for either option, we were dismayed to learn that a life cycle analysis had not been performed to predict the true long-term costs. Shouldn't this be standard operating procedure for any large capital project?

It is our hope that the Board of Education and the County Council do not make a decision before the life cycle analysis has been performed and the results presented to the community.

Cindy Ardinger, Jim Bothe, Kelli Dicks Ellicott City

Hold off on use of Taser devices

As the Howard County Council considers whether to allow police to use Taser stun guns ("Taser policy sparks worry," The Howard Sun, Feb. 28), council members should bear in mind that since June 2001, more than 230 people have died after being shot with Tasers in the United States. A majority of them were unarmed.

Many of the research studies on the safety of using Tasers have been influenced by the primary manufacturer of the weapons - Taser International Inc. - and police departments themselves. Other studies have raised serious questions about the safety of shooting the human body with 50,000 volts of electricity.

Policing is an extremely difficult job, and in some cases less-lethal weapons can be beneficial. We need to know more about the Taser's impact on all people - on healthy individuals, but also on people who have medical conditions, take prescribed medications, are mentally ill or are under the influence of narcotics. There are several key studies in progress. Howard County should hold off on using Tasers until more comprehensive information is available.

Folabi Olagbaju The writer is director, Mid-Atlantic regional office of Amnesty International USA.

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