Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D) has slashed the school district's funding request by $32 million, delaying the opening of a 12th high school and a new northern elementary school.
Robey's $148.5 million capital budget for fiscal 2004, released this week, cut $54 million in requests from all county departments even as it calls for Howard to issue $71.7 million in bonds.
Robey said the widespread cuts were necessary in the face of shrinking state aid and the Howard legislative delegation's refusal earlier this year to support his plan to raise the real estate transfer tax.
The capital budget provides for items that are "absolutely essential," Robey said Monday during a meeting with reporters. "It was simply impossible to fund all those [requests]. So it was a matter of sitting down and prioritizing," he said.
After receiving $13 million from the state last year and $25 million two years ago, county officials are counting on just $4.5 million this year, as lawmakers in Annapolis grapple with Maryland's budget problems.
Board of Education members said they knew they were seeking a lot when they approved a landmark $87.9 million capital budget request that included money for a 12th high school and three elementary schools to keep pace with booming enrollment. Still, the reductions in the school budget are difficult to accept, one board member said.
"We have to work really hard to make the council understand that we can't live with this level of cuts," board member Courtney Watson said.
The biggest cut, about $21 million, will force the delay of the 12th high school in the northern part of the county until 2006. The school is now slated to receive $4.4 million next fiscal year to prepare the site for construction.
That new school was supposed to relieve crowding at Mount Hebron, Centennial and River Hill high schools, which are projected to soon be over capacity by hundreds of students. Watson helped found a group that spent months lobbying for the school about two years ago, and she said parents were shocked when they learned the project will be delayed.
"It's one of our greatest needs," she said.
Also deferred was a new northern elementary school that was scheduled to open in 2008, as well as some systemic renovations and money for computers and site acquisition. Two other elementary schools, planned for the northeast and the west, are on track. Meanwhile, the schools' needs keep growing. The capital budget request for fiscal 2005 already is expected to reach about $112 million -- and that doesn't include the costs of postponing this year's requests. Board members said they'll lobby for full funding.
"The board believes that this is a top priority, and we will advocate for the entire budget in front of the County Council," Chairman Sandra H. French said. "We remain hopeful."
That optimism does not seem to be shared in the corridors of the executive's office.
There is a backlog of street paving needs that could cost some $12 million, said Jim Irvin, the county's director of public works. But only about $3.7 million is in the budget for road resurfacing. Money to expand the county courthouse also is not in the budget.
Instead there is money for the basics, Robey said, "nothing glitzy." There is $7.3 million for infrastructure maintenance, money to clean out storm drains, repair bridges and fix leaky roofs; almost a $1 million for a new financial accounting system to replace outdated software; and $465,000 for improvements to Banneker Fire Station in Columbia, one of the county's busiest.
"We have been on hold with many of these projects as long as we dare," he said.
There is also $6.4 million budgeted for a public safety training center, the need for which Robey said "has never been greater."
First responders "must now be armed against bioterrorism agents that are becoming more dangerous and varied," he said.
The council will vote on the capital budget in May. Robey is expected to unveil his operating budget, which could call for increased property and income taxes, later this month.