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County to bump up education funds

February 07, 2007|by TARA REILLY

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Washington County plans to significantly increase the Board of Education's construction budget for the coming fiscal year, but figuring out how to come up with the money won't be easy, Commissioners President John F. Barr said Tuesday.

Early cost estimates for three planned elementary schools - Maugansville, Westfields and Pangborn - are about $75 million, Barr said during the 2007 State of the County at Four Points Sheraton.

The commissioners, Barr said, are facing a financial challenge as they work on the fiscal year 2008 capital budget.

"We are committed to realizing the three new elementary schools," Barr said. "Therefore, we will be making some tough choices on funding. Rest assured, though, there will be a significant increase in capital funding for the Board of Education."

Construction on the three schools is set to begin this year, he said.

The projects come at a time when the county is facing an approximately $11 million shortfall in excise tax revenue for the current fiscal year. The excise tax is charged to new residential and commercial construction. Much of the revenue goes toward school construction.

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County officials have said a slowdown in the housing market and smaller home construction projects caused the excise tax shortfall.

Barr said paying for the capital expenses will require a partnership between the Board of Education, state, county and the construction industry.

Public safety, economic development and road improvements also were topics addressed by Barr.

The commissioners signed a contract in 2006 for a $19.4 million public safety radio system to improve communication among state, county and municipal police departments, and fire and emergency responders.

The system could be in use by August 2008.

"Without a doubt, this will improve response times and the level of emergency care," Barr said.

Planned road projects include improvements to the Mount Aetna Road and U.S. 40 intersection, Maugans Avenue, and the intersection of Edgewood Drive and U.S. 40.

Barr also praised redevelopment efforts at the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base in Cascade. Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) of Columbia, Md., is planning to turn the base into an residential and business center.

The project includes 673 residential units, 1.7 million square feet of commercial space and the creation of 4,541 jobs, with a capital investment of $256 million, Barr said.

"By far, the redevelopment of Fort Ritchie is one of the largest economic development projects to ever occur in Washington County," Barr said.

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