Wicomico Unwilling To Pledge Bennett Middle Funds

SALISBURY – The Wicomico County Council voted this week to turn down the opportunity to commit funding to the Bennett Middle School project until all information is available.

The County Council faced the decision this week of whether to endorse a “Letter of Intent” to the state committing funding to the BMS project. The county is to attend the State of Maryland Board of Public Works meeting Jan. 25 when a discussion is scheduled to address public school construction.

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 the project to cost about $75.3 million — $42.8 million is to be paid by the county.

Deputy Director of Finance for Wicomico County Andy Mackel has presented the council with a few funding options for BMS. A few weeks ago, he pointed the council in the direction of “Option B,” which includes using cash on hand the county has in funding the construction of the new BMS from prior bonding.

Mackel explained that bonds for the Bennett High School (BHS) project have $9.1 million on hand that could be directed toward BMS.

“Over $7 million was bonded to complete BHS, and part of the completion of BHS depends on the completion of Bennett Middle,” he said. “So that $7 million is going to be available for cash use until we finish Bennett Middle.”

Also, $8.4 million has already been bonded for the BMS project, which $2.8 million has been used, leaving $5.6 million on hand. The current bonds create a total of $14.7 million.

County Administrator Matt Creamer reviewed the process it would take to redirect the use of BHS bonds.

“In order to borrow the money [bond], you have to pass legislation and in that legislation it spells out specifically what you are going to borrow and what for … once you pass that legislation, you have passed a law,” he said. “In order for the BHS money to be made available for BMS, you would have to pass a new law that would nullify the law that was passed when those bonds were sold …”

Since that time County Executive Rick Pollitt has submitted a Capital Improvement Budget which calls for a 7-cent tax increase, which includes all capital improvement projects within the county and 2 cents of the increase dedicated to BMS.

“This is commitment [letter of intent] not just on this council but the term for this year coming up to increase the tax rate by 7 cents but also years beyond,” Prettyman said. “The other is that we would be going to the bond market … going to the bond market and rolling dice trying to replace the finds that we have already bonded for Bennett High.”

The letter did not receive a vote from Councilwoman Gail Bartkovich or Prettyman.

“There is a big piece that is missing, our operating budget, and that is a very important part of this process because we can be told something but when we see it on paper the facts can be entirely different, and that is why I am saying to do this now is like putting my name on a contract with all the blanks not filled in …,” Bartkovich said.

Council President Joe Holloway, who was joined by Bob Culver in opposition to the letter, said, “If this would have come before us today at a more reasonable cost, and if I would have seen more effort in trying to get the price down … I guess to say until I see a better economic forecast and something that we can count on more … I am not going to support this.”

In favor of the letter were Council members Sheree Sample-Hughes, Matt Holloway and John Hall.

“Being a graduate from Bennett Middle School, I am very familiar with the building and the shape it is in,” Matt Holloway said.