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Funding school construction

September 22, 2005

Facing a $2 billion backlog of school building and maintenance projects, officials of Maryland's five largest counties and Baltimore Cty have asked Gov. Robert Ehrlich for a big boost in construction cash.

It would make sense, if Maryland's surplus is a one-year event, to use the cash for capital expenses such as school construction. It would also make sense, however, to develop a new revenue source by approving slot machines for the state's horse tracks.

Officials of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Howard County, Montgomery County and Prince George's County made their request in a letter delivered to Ehrlich on Monday.

They are asking that $400 million be devoted to construction this year, up from the $250 million committed in the current year. The Associated Press reported that although the state finished the fiscal year with a $1.2 billion surplus, all but $600 million has been committed.

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Is there a need? In July, it was revealed that Washington County would get about half of the $12 million in school-construction money it had requested for next year.

In May, the Washington County Commissioners voted to give the school system $12.7 million for capital projects. But William Blum, the school system's chief operating officer, said that the system now has a backlog of maintenance work estimated at $100 million.

At the time, Rodney Turnbough, director of facilities management, said that although in recent years the local system has gotten more aggressive in seeking state funding, during that time the state's budget has also gotten tighter.

A 2003 state task force report found that to clear the $2 billion backlog, the state needed to spend at least $250 million every year through 2013. In two years, the backlog has jumped to $2.2 billion, because of increases in construction costs.

The Hurricane Katrina cleanup will likely increase that total again, because materials will be in shorter supply and hence, priced higher. To clear the backlog, we believe slots will be a necessity, not a luxury.

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