The Charles County Board of Commissioners learned Tuesday morning that the county's pocketbook is deep enough to pay for the aggressive five-year capital improvement program approved last year, despite Maryland's financial straits and the loss of the Kelson Ridge electricity generation plant project.
However, dismal state budget forecasts make it unlikely that the county government can afford any new projects -- such as enclosing the swimming pool at Thomas Stone High School or upgrading the Nanjemoy Community Center. Nevertheless, elected officials breathed a collective sigh of relief because no existing projects have to be cut.
"This is not bad news," Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large) said. "This is good news. I fully expected to be shedding projects."
At Tuesday's briefing, the first of several meetings this month on the capital improvements program, county finance officials gave the commissioners best- and worst-case scenarios for the county's $105 million capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2004 through 2008.
At Levy's suggestion, the commissioners decided to base the capital spending plan on the lowest level of borrowing that projections show the county could afford in the current period of economic recession. That approach would leave the county with just $284,000 in bond money to pay for projects not already in the construction budget plan.
The commissioners said they will ask county agencies, the Board of Education and the College of Southern Maryland to look at their capital improvement requests to determine whether newer proposals should take priority over those that already have funding commitments. Otherwise, they'll have to put their latest requests on hold.
"It doesn't make sense to add new projects that we can't afford unless we take something off the books," Levy said. "If the state doesn't come up with the money, we're not going to, either."
Projects that could land on the cutting board include the extension of Mill Hill Road, the T.C. Martin Elementary School renovation and gymnasium addition, courthouse renovations, the La Plata Public Library addition, the conversion of the old Career and Technology Center in Pomfret, and several park playgrounds.
Commissioner W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata) said all county agencies will need to be team players to cope with the tough economic times. "We're trying to make this hurt as little as possible," he said.
Even with a conservative approach for fiscal 2004, officials said, the county should be able to keep its major local road projects on schedule. Those projects, which will require about $80 million, include improvements on Acton Lane, construction for the cross-county connector between Billingsley and Middletown roads, and design work for the proposed Western Parkway.
The ability to move forward with such road projects was put in doubt last month after Houston-based Reliant Energy backed out of its agreement to build the $1.2 billion Kelson Ridge Plant in Waldorf. The plant was billed as the county's leading economic development project, and elected officials had planned to use anticipated tax revenue from the plant to pay the principal and interest on $16 million worth of capital improvement bonds.
Officials will make up for that loss by stretching out last year's five-year program until 2008, when an additional $25 million in bonds will be generated to cover existing projects, Budget Director David M. Eicholtz said.
Several commissioners emphasized that transportation is their top priority because of its implications for economic development.
"We want the roads," Levy said. "We want them now."
More adjustments to the capital improvement plan could be ahead, depending on what cuts state leaders issue in the upcoming months. The commissioners said Tuesday that new school projects are particularly worrisome.
Charles faces millions in costs for the new North Point High School in Waldorf, plus another high school and middle school proposed by the Board of Education.
State officials already have decided no new school projects will be considered this year. But commissioners noted that the county must continue building new schools to meet adequate public facilities requirements for future development.
Revenue from a recently implemented excise tax on new development will ensure that North Point High School is built, they said, but they expect more tough decisions ahead if the state is unable to come through with its share for other school projects.