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Revisit school bond plan

February 05, 2004

Can Washington County afford to nearly double the amount it puts into school construction each year? Given the $80 million backlog of local school maintenance and renovation projects, the answer should be yes.

But increases promised by Gov. Robert Ehrlich may not survive the General Assembly's budget-cutting process. If they don't, the commissioners must look again at the school construction bond plan they rejected last year.

New excise and transfer taxes and fees on builders will bring the county $10.3 million in new revenue for fiscal year 2005. Even with a state aid cut of $3 million, that's still a net increase of $7 million. Looking hard at the cash are the school system and Hagerstown Community College, which are requesting $10 million and $2 million respectively.

If Ehrlich's general fund budget passes as written, the local school system would get almost $8 million in new money. His capital budget calls for a $19.7 million for county projects, including $2.1 million toward renovation of Salem Avenue Elementary School.

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But the cost of that and other projects could increase by 6 percent if recommendations of the Task Force to Study Public School Facilities are approved. That group wants local governments to pay 41 percent of local school construction costs, versus the 35 percent they pay now.

If that sounds like an insignificant change, it isn't. On the Salem Avenue Elementary project, the increase would amount to half a million dollars.

The bottom line: Tax revenues are only estimates now and Ehrlich's budget faces some tough scrutiny from lawmakers. The arrival all of the money promised or anticipated is not a sure thing.

The prudent thing to do would be to prepare for the worst and look again at the School Board's proposal to issue bonds to catch up with the backlog. The $25 million bond issue would be paid for with $1.7 million in funds from annual state aid, a sum School Board members have asked the county to contribute.

Last September Commissioners' President Greg Snook said the commissioners might issue the bonds on their own. But a month later, with less than a minute's discussion, they rejected the idea. Barring introduction of a better plan, it's time to give the bond idea another look.

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