Culver moves around money for Mardela renovation

County officials, in a meeting with the Board of Education’s Director of Facility Services on Tuesday, offered $291,000 — earmarked in County Executive Bob Culver’s  FY20 budget for roof repairs to Westside Intermediate School — to begin a renovation study for Mardela Middle & High School.

Culver made the offer, in the form of a promise, at last week’s County Council meeting, following an outpouring of objections from students, parents and teachers at Mardela, disappointed money for the study, and a subsequent new school, had been removed from Culver’s budget.

Assistant County Administrator Weston Young explained the Board of Ed won’t complete the roofing project this year because the state won’t be providing matching funds at this time.

The Board of Education requested $700,000 for the study to determine major renovations at Mardela. Now, the Board of Ed will us $90,000 of its own money to total about $300,000 to begin assessing needs and planning.

The Wicomico County Council could increase that amount by cutting funding to other county departments or increasing taxes.

Young said he was surprised to hear the term “kicking the can down the road,” used by Board of Education President Don Fitzgerald and others, in reference to Mardela, at last week’s meeting because the school has not consistently been listed as a priority in the Board of Education’s Capital Improvement Plan.

“It was not a serious priority until this year,” Young said.

In FY18, Mardela’s track was the Board of Education’s No. 3 priority and a new HVAC system for Mardela was No. 5.

Fourth in the list of priorities was a new Beaver Run Elementary School and fifth was air conditioning for Mardela.

In FY19, Delmar Elementary was the No. 1 priority, Beaver Run was second and Glenn  Avenue Elementary School was No. 3.

Limited renovation for Mardela was the seventh priority.

For FY20, the current fiscal year, Beaver Run was the No. 1 priority and Mardela was second.

“If they knew, ideally, they were going to ask for a new school for Mardela or major renovation, five years out they would have listed it. Three years out, they would have listed it, because it’s getting closer,” Young  said.

A new Public Safety Building, housing the Sheriff’s Office,  was delayed this year, too, and not as many dump trucks purchased as requested by Public Works.

“They said, ‘OK. I need to adjust my operations based on three less dump trucks.’ If we say we are not building that hangar at the airport, they adapt.

“With the Board of Ed, we’re funding their No. 1 priority, Beaver Run. We are fully funding (Superintendent of Schools) Dr. (Donna) Hanlin’s budget. We are proposing to fund the county match for the Westside Intermediate School roof.

“And what did we get? The message is, ‘You don’t care about Mardela.

“The Executive does not set the Board of Ed’s priorities and the Board of Ed’s priorities changed over the years. We know something is needed at Mardela and we’re going to try to figure it out,” Young said.

But that wasn’t enough for Fitzgerald.

At the county meeting last week, he said he has praised Culver in the past, but not in this case.

“I know the money is there. Oh, yes, it is. Yes, it is,” he said, glaring at Culver.

“It’s priorities. You can’t sit there and tell me the students at Mardela are not worth it … Kicking this can down the road is bull,” he said.

“We’ve had all of these alumni here from Mardela, speaking from their heart. I’m speaking from my heart,” Fitzgerald said.

Young said Fitzgerald was referring to money in the county’s Reserve Fund, or Rainy Day Fund. Borrowing from that fund isn’t a good idea, he said, especially since keeping a healthy reserve allows the county to maintain a high bond rating.

Young said Culver completely agrees Mardela “needs to be looked at” but the county must also prepare for impending major expenses including the minimum wage being increased to $15 per hour, which will cost the county $7 million annually.

Another expense will be additional funding in the millions of dollars for schools under the Kirwin Commission and there are predictions of a recession.

“Can we survive a $15 minimum wage? Probably. Can we survive Kirwin? Maybe. And if we have a recession? You’re really taxing the system at that point,” Young said.

Young said in FY21, the county is set to borrow $7 million for Beaver Run, the same as in FY20, and at least $2.8 million for the new Public Service Building.

Young said the county might have to borrow more for the Public Service Building “if our revenues dry up and we cannot afford the $2,389,500 in General Fund ‘pay-go.’ We are also proposing, in FY21, borrowing $1.2 million for upgrades to the Coulbourn Mill Dam to satisfy (the Maryland Department  of the Environment’s) dam safety mandates.

“Throw in the $200,000 we usually have in each bond for contingency, we’ve already got $11.2 million scheduled for borrowing in FY21. With the FY21 Mardela request, there’s an additional $4 million needed to borrow, which would put the bond request up to

$15.2 million. This is 50 percent more than we usually borrow,” Young said.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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