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Schools seek help finding capital for construction

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County school officials are intensifying their campaign for a new funding source for school construction projects as demand increases while state and county contributions decrease.

School board members and Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin made a pitch for help to the county's General Assembly delegation and County Council members at a meeting Friday at board headquarters, but the legislators indicated that they had little enthusiasm for raising revenue.

The largest and most contested issue in next year's capital budget is how much to spend on Mount Hebron High School. Cousin and Diane Mikulis, the school board chairman, each said they support spending up to $50 million to renovate the Ellicott City school, though some parents have been pushing for a new building that could cost up to $90 million.

"The purpose of this meeting is to turn to our delegation to address this need" for more construction funds, Mikulis said. In addition, she said, the board is scheduled to speak soon with County Executive Ken Ulman, who attended the first part of Friday's meeting but left before the capital budget discussion.

Cousin mentioned the option of raising the county real estate transfer tax, a proposal defeated by the legislators in 2003. Mikulis said the board would compile a list of three or four ways to raise money.

"We're going to need a new funding source," agreed Del. Frank S. Turner.

But state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the county's Senate delegation chairman, urged the county to authorize borrowing more than the $100 million a year recommended by the Spending Affordability Committee.

"I think we have to take another look at raising our [borrowing] limits," Kasemeyer said, while acknowledging that constantly postponing maintenance "is a loser" because the needs grow over time.

"Maybe we can get $10 [million] or $15 million" that way, said County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a former school board member who has also served on the county's Spending Affordability Committee. Del. Guy Guzzone, a former County Council member, said he believes the county could borrow an extra $20 million to $25 million a year for the next several years.

"It's less painful and very practical," Guzzone said.

Raising revenue by some new or higher tax isn't a popular idea with legislators trying to solve a $1.5 billion projected state revenue shortfall next year.

Cousin said revenue from an excise tax on new homes is being used to pay off bonded debt, and produces no more money for new projects. At the same time, state construction funding is expected to drop substantially from last year's $23 million.

Cousin's preliminary capital budget request is for $118 million -- the largest chunk of the more than $300 million in requests that Ulman told the group he has already received for fiscal year 2009, which starts July 1.

Inflation has increased the cost of construction more than 50 percent over the past four years, said Ken Roey, executive director of facilities and management for the school system.


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