County Okays $34M High School Renovation Project

SNOW HILL – After wrangling over the inclusion of synthetic turf athletic fields, the Worcester County Commissioners approved the $34.4 million price tag on the Pocomoke High School (PHS) renovation and additions this week.

The commissioners actually took two votes, but the first motion was withdrawn when Commissioner Judy Boggs realized the wording of her motion approved the bids for all the alternate bid items, like the synthetic turf, and not the more bare bones bid, coming in at $2 million less.

“That’s not what I meant,” Boggs said after the quick vote, with little discussion, following her motion. “I was just congratulating him on saving $2.1 million. I spoke too soon.”

Boggs withdrew the motion and then the protracted discussion of the bid alternates began.

Commissioner Linda Busick expressed concern over the high cost of the synthetic turf athletic fields.

“One of the challenges we face is lack of space for athletic teams to play and practice,” said Dr. Jon Andes, superintendent of Worcester County Schools. The choice is between cutting down trees to create more fields or going with the synthetic turf, Andes said.

“In essence it could be used 24/7. We don’t have to work around any down time for the field to recover after practice and play,” said Andes.

Synthetic fields are low maintenance, have no drainage issues and eliminate the need for the multiple renovations with sod fields, which require athletic competitions to be moved offsite.

The synthetic turf, compared to the costs of installing and maintaining grass fields, will break even in five to seven years, Andes said. The synthetic fields would cost $678,000, compared to $50,000 for natural grass, but the natural grass has high maintenance costs.

“I don’t deny the value of the synthetic turf,” Boggs said. “It looks like you want to spend the money we saved because of the downturn of the economy.”

The school system wants to spend the savings on things the county cannot afford.

“It’s really easy to spend taxpayers’ money,” Boggs said.

The items in the bid alternate list would save the county money in the long run, contended Andes, pointing to the terrazzo tile alternate for high traffic areas, which lasts essentially forever, while conventional tile has to be replaced.

“These are the types of things we eliminated in value engineering to get the price down,” Boggs said. “These are extras.”

When Stephen Decatur High School (SDHS) was renovated, the athletic complex was not done at one time, Commissioner Louise Gulyas said, and asked whether that was feasible for PHS.

“Over the long term, those facilities cost more than if we accepted the original bids,” Andes said.

“I think we have to look at this a little more realistically in today’s world,” Gulyas.

“These are good bids now,” said Andes. “If we defer or delay the athletic fields, these prices would probably go up.”

The SDHS fields, bleachers and track, cost 30 to 50 percent more than the original bids when they were finally done.

“We’re talking about $2 million additional. I don’t think this is something we should be sitting here and trying to pull it apart,” said Commission President Jim Purnell. “The community of Pocomoke deserves this.”

County Commissioner Bud Church said the Board of Education deserves a little trust.

“I don’t think we should micromanage the Board of Education,” said Church, a 10-year veteran of the school board. “I think they’ve been more than fair in their requests.”

The county should fund the synthetic turf for PHS and the Snow Hill High School (SHHS) renovation, outright, Commissioner Virgil Shockley said, with $500,000 already put aside.

“We knew this was coming up. We did it after finishing Stephen Decatur,” he said.

The costs could be funded through the next two budget cycles, Shockley said, at $300,000 each year, to avoid borrowing that money.

Gerry Mason, Worcester County chief administrator, cautioned the commissioners against encumbering funds over the next few years with the economy declining. Revenue from real estate sale recordation and transfer taxes is down to 2003 levels, he said.

“You’re adding to a budget we’re going to struggle to fund,” Mason warned.

Gulyas wondered if the extra money spent on bid alternates, if approved, would make it more difficult to fund the SHHS renovation in a few years, but Church disagreed, saying the additional cost would not affect the SHHS project.

“We don’t know how bad it’s going to get. I think we really need to be prudent about how we spend money,” Boggs said.

Church made a motion to approve the bids and bid alternates, for a price tag of $34.4 million, which was approved 5-1, with Boggs dissenting. Commissioner Bobby Cowger was absent.

With the bid alternates included, the bids still came in at $2.1 less than the estimated project costs of $36.5 million.