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October 12, 2006

To Solve or To Demagogue: That Is The Question

John W. Ashbury

As the race for county commissioner proceeds, it is unfathomable that voters aren't asking the critical questions of the candidates. All we hear reported in the local media is all residential growth must be better managed or stopped.

Nothing is being said about the unintended consequences of a halt to growth, whether it be residential or commercial/industrial. We hear that it can all be better managed, yet little attention is being paid to the effects of the national economy, to say nothing of the price of real estate in the local market.

At this juncture in calendar year 2006, it would appear that Frederick County will issue around 1300 permits for new housing before December 31. That's 300 houses short of what is required to pay off the debt service each year on the revenue bonds sold to build school projects. The impact fees paid on new construction have been dedicated to the retirement of those bonds since they were first instituted in 1993.

It is an issue that raises the hackles of both sides. Many stuck in traffic complain, even if they are involved in the construction trades. And so many new residents, who moved here to get away from traffic congestion in other places, clamor for restrictions on new housing; sort of seeking to pull up the bridge over the moat so no one else can get the relief they got.

And yet if the percentage increases in population in the county dissipate, the state, which will have to build the roads we need to really relieve the congestion, will say we don't need them as much as some other jurisdiction. And so we will go begging again.

The national housing slowdown will continue to affect Frederick County, likely to the point that the next board of commissioners won't have to do a thing to "halt" or better "manage" growth.

The concern that all taxpayers in the county should have is how the commissioners will make up the revenue shortfall that comes with reduced housing starts. There is talk of a transfer tax, or an excise tax (whatever you like) dedicated to rehabilitation of our older school buildings.

Of course, that won't affect everyone, just those who buy and sell houses. Estimates are that a one percent transfer tax would pay for the six year capital improvement budget for older schools, thought to be around $50 million, in less than three years. However, those estimates are based on property transactions over the past four or five years when the real estate market was extremely hot locally and nationally.

Should the commissioners further reduce housing starts, thereby increasing the costs of existing properties, a transfer tax would be a drop in the bucket to what will really be needed.

Another unintended consequence here will be that people, who work here, and down I-270, or east toward Baltimore, will move further west and north. But they will travel through Frederick County twice a day going to and from work, adding to the traffic congestion that is stirring all the furor, but adding nothing to the local economy, just to the burden we Frederick County residents must carry.

It is truly sad that none of the candidates are getting the message out that these problems exist. John Lovell and Mike Cady, both seeking re-election, have tried, but they have been drowned out by the cacophony of the "no-growthers." And the media that is letting them get away with it should be ashamed of itself.

It is almost as if the media is in the hip pocket of some of the candidates, much the same as they accuse other candidates of being beholden to the special interests.

Reporters and commentators alike forget that being on one side or the other puts them in someone's hip pocket, if the analogy holds. Columnists have a right to express their views based on their own bias. Reporters do not. And editors who allow them to get away with it should get switched with the same hickory twig.

And the Board of Education is as much to blame for the current uproar over growth. There are a lot of schools excessively over crowded. But there are possibilities at all three levels to redistrict to alleviate at least some of the packed classrooms.

High school students outnumber the total number of permanent seats county wide by 546 this year. There are a total of 12,769 high school students. But approximately 10 percent of them are absent every day: that's 1277 students. And after first period, another large number of students leave for work-study or Frederick Community College to pad their college transcript.

Linganore is the most seriously overcrowded. It comes in at 140% capacity. However, Oakdale High is scheduled to open in August 2008. And a renovated - or replacement - Linganore High should open in 2010.

A realistic alternative would be to redistrict some students out of Linganore into either Catoctin (90%) or Governor Thomas Johnson (94%), or both. Some TJ students could be moved into Frederick High which is at 84 percent. And some Tuscarora students, now in a school at 123% capacity, could be shifted to Frederick High as well; or perhaps to Brunswick High which is at 92 percent.

There are 256 empty seats at Frederick High; 113 empty seats at Catoctin; 134 empty at TJ; and Brunswick has 67 seats empty. Linganore has 505 more students that its state rated capacity.

Something has to be done to make use of the empty seats we have. Taxpayers cannot continue to build new seats while allowing seats we already have to remain empty.

Our school board doesn't want to redistrict because of the grief they will get from some parents. But isn't that part of being an elected representative in whatever capacity. You have to take the good with the bad. It's time to tell those complaining parents where to get off. Aren't we all tired of hearing their complaints without solutions to the problem other than to reach into every taxpayer's pocket?

The reason so many elementary schools seem to be overcrowded is the state requirement for all day kindergarten. This additional mandated burden came without any additional funds for more seats - or more schools.

Only 12 of the 37 elementary schools are above 100 percent capacity. But here again redistricting could alleviate some of the problems.

For example, Walkersville Elementary is at 131%, while Glade Elementary, also within the Town of Walkersville is at 86%. There are 92 seats at Glade which are unoccupied, while Walkersville Elementary is 153 seats above capacity. Seems in this corner that it would be an easy matter to shift students here to bring both closer to 100% capacity.

But if the school board redistricts, it won't be able to clamor for more state funds claiming that schools are overcrowded.

It's a vicious cycle that must be broken. And the only way to do that is to elect people to the Board of Education and the Board of County Commissioners who will be honest with the voting public and suggest solutions rather than demagoguing the issues.

Good Luck on November 7 - and the four years thereafter.

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