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Some Projects Not In Robey's Budget

Executive Wants to Protect Bond Rating

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page HO03

The $235.3 million capital budget proposed by Howard County Executive James N. Robey provides a hefty 14 percent spending increase to cover new school buildings, additions to the community college, a public safety training center and part of an expansion at Howard General Hospital.

Some projects, however, didn't show up in the 2006 fiscal year capital budget that Robey announced last week, in part because the executive wants the county to issue about $86 million in general bonds, not the $90 million his Spending Affordability Committee recommended earlier this year

"I'm just not comfortable going to that number," he said Tuesday. "I don't think it's prudent."

Robey said he wants to protect the county's esteemed Triple A bond rating, which earns the county the best lending terms from financial institutions.

Despite increased revenues from a 2004 tax on new homes and rising property taxes, Robey said the county is "not back to where we were when the recession hit in 2001."

"Every year we always receive more requests than the money that we have. It's a matter of setting priorities," he said.

The $78 million Robey proposed for the school system would help replace overcrowded Bushy Park Elementary in Glenwood, build the new northeast and western elementary schools, expand Howard High School and add more classrooms for full-day kindergarten.

School officials had sought about $18 million to fund renovations at aging schools. But Robey wants to postpone $9.4 million worth of renovations.

"It will be very serious decisions because our older schools need these renovations," said Courtney Watson, school board chairman. "We're trying to catch up after a long period of growth."

She said the board will review Robey's capital budget proposal, which now goes to the County Council. That body has the power to add money only for education.

The renovation projects that the school board had requested but could now be at risk are at Lisbon Elementary, Clarksville Elementary and Centennial Lane Elementary, county and school officials said. An estimated $10.7 million is needed to begin two-year renovation projects at those schools. Robey, who was in Annapolis earlier this week, said the General Assembly may provide additional dollars for those renovations.

At the 29-year-old Lisbon Elementary School, school officials want to redesign the open classroom pods that were popular in the 1970s. Already, floor tiles in some hallways and rooms have been removed, said PTA president Beth Halley.

"We hope, since the ball is rolling, that things are going to continue," Halley said. "We'll just continue to have a unified community effort to keep it in the forefront."

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) said he got involved last year when planning dollars for Lisbon's project were threatened, and he'll push to complete the renovations.

"I want to see these projects done. They're a very high priority for me," said Guzzone, who added that the council could consider issuing more general obligation bonds for school construction. "When we build new classrooms, we need to be sure there's the same kind of commitment [to older schools] to make sure equity problems don't occur."

Other building projects that fared well in Robey's budget include $5.7 million for a public safety training center in western Howard, which is expected to cost nearly $23 million. The budget also contained $12.3 million to match state funding for Howard Community College's new student services building, and $7.2 million for the college's first parking garage. The garage's construction will be financed through new college parking fees. Robey's proposal also has the county contributing $3 million to a $73 million expansion planned by Howard County General Hospital.

A big project that didn't make Robey's budget is a $28.7 million Ellicott City library that would be more than three times the size of the existing Miller Branch Library on Frederick Road and house the collections of the Howard County Historical Society. The existing Miller Branch facility eventually would be renovated to house the library system's administrative offices.

Valerie J. Gross, director of the library system, said officials are still trying to find a suitable 10-acre site, and are looking at property near the Miller Branch facility and at the Turf Valley Resort further west on Route 40.

Robey said he supported the project but added, "I was not convinced about their ability to [quickly] find a location."

The first public hearing on the county executive's proposed capital budget is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 21 in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Courthouse Dr., Ellicott City.

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