Bennett Middle Funding Options Weighed

SALISBURY – Wicomico County is facing a long to do list in a short amount of time in order to get the James M. Bennett Middle School (BMS) project underway as possible funding methods were proposed this week.

The County Council is under pressure to sign a letter addressed to state officials endorsing their commitment in funding to the Bennett Middle School Project. The county is to attend the Board of Public Works meeting on Jan. 28 and county staff is looking to have that letter in hand by that time.

The inception of the BMS project, the construction of a new school and the demolition of the current school, began over three years ago, and the county has already bonded $8 million to go toward the project. The Board of Education has estimated for the project to cost about $75.3 million, including $42.8 million in county funds.

BMS Principal Liza Hastings spoke during public comments to encourage the council to fund the construction of the new BMS.

Hastings provided examples of why BMS deserves the funding and starting by saying the school is overcrowded with classes held in former closets, on the stage and in 11 portable classrooms.

“Because the students that visit these classrooms [portable] also have to enter the main building I am unable to lock down my school like other schools can,” she said.

Next, Hastings said that the school is not in compliance with ADA regulations and in the last six months she has had three incidents occur where she was unable to meet the needs of physically handicapped stakeholders because of the lack of elevators in the building.

“During the summer, it was brought to my attention that an incoming sixth grader has physical limitations that made it impossible for him to travel stairs,” she said. “As a result, BMS was unable to educate him and he has to travel to another middle school outside of this district to receive his education.”

Hastings said that because the BMS project has been on the table for so long the school’s need for technology has been postponed.

“My students are not been given access to this 21st century necessity as their peers are at other schools,” she said.

Parents in Action member Lisa Mertensotto said now is the best time to fund the BMS project.

“We have a long and proud history of creating debt for the right reasons and in this case I believe it is the right reason,” she said. “I don’t think we can wait any longer.”

Several public comments referred to the state’s commitment to fund 96 percent of the project, but Council President Joe Holloway took the time to clear up that miscommunication.

“What it boils down to is the state pays 96 percent of the bricks and mortar, and we talk about soft costs … for the rest of it in technology, furnishings, kitchen, and equipment,” he used as examples. “So really if my figures of what I have been told and given are correct we are about $10 million short of paying half. We are still looking at about $42 million.”

Later, during a work session, staff and school board officials presented the council with funding options.

Deputy Director of Finance for Wicomico Andy Mackel said the county is currently facing over $100 million in debt during fiscal year 2012, and according to the charter the debt cap is set at $262 million.

“At $100 million today, we are well below our charter limit and if we were to add Bennett Middle … it would still be under our total limit for debt,” he said.

Next Mackel reviewed the county’s tax rate regarding generated revenue in the upcoming year.
“Setting the tax rate is appropriate to determine affordability,” he said.

According to Mackel, in the fiscal year of 2013 the taxable value of the county’s real property base will decline by roughly 6.1 percent. In order to collect the same amount of revenue from real property, the tax rate will have to be increased by 5.4 cents. The revenue cap is expected to allow a $1.3 million increase in revenue. The tax rate to collect that amount would be .839, a 7-cent increase of the FY12 rate.

County Executive Rick Pollitt reminded the council that the county stands dead last among all the other counties in Maryland for investment in infrastructure. Pollitt added that he is confident that the BMS project can happen.

“We are still checking with the bond council but as you know right now Bennett Middle is our highest priority,” he said.

The council meets next on Jan. 3 where its plan to make a decision on endorsing the project. City Administrator Matt Creamer suggested that Pollitt ask for an extension on the deadline if the council agrees to the letter.

“It sounds as though things may be moving in a positive direction here,” he said. “If these answers all come back in the right way … this could all come together pretty soon after the first week of January.”

Pollitt concluded that once an answer is received form the bond council the County Council will have a packet of information in their hands, along with the capital improvement plans so that the council can weigh the different projects with the proposed funding for the BMS project.