County makes requests for 2017 legislative session
DENTON — The Caroline County commissioners met Tuesday, Nov. 15, with the Maryland state delegates and senators who represent them to discuss the county’s legislative requests, issues and concerns, as the delegation prepares for the 2017 session.
Among the bill requests are one that would fix a state funding inequality for several small community colleges, including Chesapeake College, and a bond bill for capital improvements at the Benedictine School outside Ridgely.
A third bill request, that would have allowed the commissioners to serve staggered terms, was withdrawn after the commissioners recently voted not to expand the board from three to five members.
The biggest discussion item during the meeting was the effect of state regulations on the cost to renovate existing schools and build new ones.
Milton Nagel, Caroline County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for administrative services, presented two recent examples.
The school system’s most recently completed project was the renovation of Preston Elementary School, which included a large addition.
The original construction budget was $15.2 million, Nagel said, but when the first bids came in, they totaled $18.5 million. After re-bidding the project and adjusting some items, the cost was brought down to $16.2 million, a $1 million shortfall which, fortunately, the county was able to step up and cover, in addition to its original commitment.
Nagel said the same thing is happening as the school system prepares to renovate Greensboro Elementary School. The construction budget is $35.8 million, but the architect and construction management firms estimate the real cost will be $52.4 million — 46 percent over budget.
Several problems are at play, Nagel said.
First, Nagel said, the construction budget, including the amount of state funding to be received, is set when the state approves the project, but it might be months until the project is actually ready to be bid. By that time, costs have risen, driving them beyond the budget.
Second, Caroline County has a hard time attracting multiple contractors to bid; Delaware contractors do not want to cross state lines and deal with Maryland’s more complex paperwork and certification requirements, while contractors on the western shore avoid the area because of a lack of housing for workers.
As a result, the county only receives a couple of bids at a time, so the quotes are not competitive. “They bid high,” Nagel said. Nagel said even contractors who would otherwise bid on the project choose not to because of the state’s prevailing wage requirement, which calls for workers to be paid a rate higher than their usual wage.
The prevailing wage requirements, combined with more requirements for certification and energy efficiency, drive up the total project costs by 35 percent, Nagel said.
Finally, since state school construction funds are limited, projects are often dragged out over more funding cycles than necessary, Nagel said. An 18-month project might need 36 months of funding, and in that time, costs continue to rise.
Nagel said the school system is currently looking at how the Greensboro Elementary School project might be accomplished without any state funding. Without all the requirements and restrictions, it could be significantly cheaper for the county to build the school, even without any state money.
Charles Petrick, supervisor of school construction, said a project was recently completed in Tennessee, in which a brand new school, the same size Greensboro will be after the renovation, was built for $28 million, half of the projected cost for the renovation.
Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-36, said preparing a budget without state funding could send a strong message to the state.
“It would be a great chance to make a statement, to say we don’t want your mandates or your money,” Hershey said.
Caroline County Administrator Ken Decker said the healthy working relationship between the county’s government and its school system would make it possible.
“(The county government) knows they do the best possible job with the money they get, but their hands are tied (on school construction budgets) because of state mandates,” Decker said.
The Maryland Association of Counties has also identified smarter state funding for school construction as a top priority in the 2017 legislative session.