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The Tentacle


January 19, 2006

To what purpose is this waste? - St. Matthew

John W. Ashbury

The Frederick County Board of Education is proceeding with its plans to build a 105,000-square-foot facility for its administrative staff in downtown Frederick. It's still a bad idea.

Back in 1989, Hal Keller, the budget director for the county commissioners and now the chief financial officer for Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS), lobbied the commissioners heavily to purchase the Plantronics property on Hayward Road. His efforts were successful and that building is now the headquarters for our school system.

But almost immediately complaints were heard from the educrats that the building needed complete renovation and upgrading, or they couldn't do their jobs.

Then came Mayor Paul Gordon of the City of Frederick, who negotiated an agreement between the city, county and school board that forced the school system to keep at least its top core educrats downtown on East Church Street in a building that was constructed in 1900.

FCPS has spent upwards of $10 million to purchase, renovate and maintain Hayward Road in the last 15 years. Now staff, and the Board of Education members themselves, want to build a Taj Mahal to rival any school constructed in the county in recent memory.

Unfortunately, the county commissioners and the City of Frederick have agreed that this expansive building will be constructed at the corner of East South Street and South East Street, on a prime parcel of land in the Carroll Creek Project. At present, while negotiations are continuing as to just how to divide the property, FCPS officials are estimating the cost at about $18 per square foot, or between $630,000 and $700,000. The Tourism Council of Frederick County will purchase the remainder of the lot on which to build its new headquarters.

When the new exit off I-70 is constructed, all traffic entering downtown Frederick for the south will pass this property. It's great for the Tourism Council and its mission, but a lousy idea for the Board of Education headquarters. This parcel is one of the most valuable in the city and our elected officials have decided to take it off the tax rolls, thus shifting an additional burden to other property owners.

When first proposed, the design and construction was originally estimated to be $16.1 million. That was in September 2004. In December 2005 that estimate had risen to $20.8 million, including a $2.1 million inflation factor, assuming the construction doesn't begin until July 2007.

The actual cost to the taxpayers would be reduced by the proceeds from the sale of the current Hayward Road complex, the East Church Street headquarters building, the farmhouse and adjacent lot on Hayward Road, and possibly the Primary Building in Middletown. Current estimates are that these sales will generate about $7.4 million, not including the Middletown building.

The estimates seem high when one considers that FCPS staff have been for years "bad mouthing" these properties as being in total disrepair.

However, the Board of Education can't sell these properties. Under state law, when the school system decides not to use the buildings for school purposes, the properties must be returned to the county to do as it sees fit at the time.

The current commissioners have made a commitment to sell the properties and to apply the proceeds to the cost of this new administrative office building. There is a problem with this.

When the time comes to dispose of these buildings there will be a new Board of County Commissioners. The current commissioners can't commit a future board to this idea, especially when the contract for construction won't be let until after they have left office (December 2006).

So, while the project could eventually cost every bit of that $13.4 initial investment with the sale proceeds applied, taxpayers must be made aware that the Board of Education is now planning to spend $750,000 every year for a long time from its operating budget to pay down the debt service, or to lease the building from the contractor who builds it. Operating expenses are what FCPS spends to actually educate our children. If this plan is eventually implemented, direct benefit to the children will be reduced by three quarters of a million dollars every year for nearly a generation.

Adding additional expenses to those already mentioned will be the cost of parking for all the employees who will be working there. The city and the county are planning another parking deck for this area of the Carroll Creek Project. Estimates are that the deck now being built on the Old Delphey property on West Patrick Street behind the courthouse will cost about $15,000 per space.

Ray Barnes, executive director of the Facilities Services Division of FCPS, estimates that the school system will need about 300 spaces in the new deck. So that could add more than $4.5 million to the final cost of this project for FCPS.

All of this makes little fiscal sense when the county already owns land on which this new office building could be built - on Hayward Road between the current FCPS office facility and the FCPS warehouse. The county bought it as part of that Plantronics purchase in 1989.

Complaints about this idea revolve around the parking issue. But when the new building is up, FCPS could tear down the present building and pave the ground, thus creating far more than the 300 spaces Mr. Barnes says will be needed.

The new construction along Carroll Creek is finally getting a foothold. There will be hundreds of new jobs downtown before any new FCPS structure is completed, likely not until sometime in 2009. Why else would we be building a new parking deck now with another already in the planning stages?

The big question that no one seems to want to answer is this: Is it wise to spend nearly $25 million to keep 300 FCPS employees downtown (That's 300 of approximately 5,000 FCPS employees) when the taxpayers could be saved millions of dollars by building this new headquarters building on ground taxpayers already own.

Besides, if the property is sold to private enterprise and a building of similar size as the one FCPS is planning is constructed, how much property tax revenue would the city and county receive? And, couldn't that revenue help offset the cost of a new structure on Hayward Road?

In the current situation of rising construction costs, due in part to the massive destruction in the south from the hurricanes last summer, and with escalating land prices, should the county and the Board of Education even consider this project at this time?

And without much thought to the matter, it is conceivable that the estimated revenue from the sale of the properties proposed is way too high.

This project, which many consider necessary, is actually a wasteful public endeavor that will not enhance the education our children receive. Get them out of portables! Redistrict to use the permanent seats already available! Do the best you can with what you got! And stop complaining that your facilities aren't adequate - or fancy enough.

Turn out a better product. Then you'll get the palatial offices you desire.

And if you think this is a lone voice crying in the wilderness, read The Frederick News-Post article published on Wednesday January 18 on Page A-5. It seems that 84 percent of Internet voters on the FNP web site said "No" to this project.



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