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March 22, 2010

Campaign Diary A New County?

Michael Kurtianyk

Tuesday, March 16 – Morning View – This was quite a day. The morning was spent watching the Board of County Commissioners proceedings on television.


For those who need a reminder, Commissioner John L. “Lennie” Thompson requested that the following be discussed and voted on: “Proposed Resolution to Explore the Financial and Legal Ramifications of Seceding from Maryland and Applying to Congress for Admission to the Union as a New State.”


Now, before anyone starts laughing, please consider one reason why Commissioner Thompson made this proposal.


Mr. Thompson pointed to several deficiencies in financial support for Frederick County, including state and federal obligations for retiree health care and pensions, road maintenance and school funding. The purpose of his proposal was to draw attention to the massive amount of these unfunded mandates fostered on our county.


His resolution, which was defeated by a 4-1 vote, called further attention to the continued influence of the urban areas of our state; and he wondered aloud what would happen when rural areas, like Frederick County, pay a disproportionate amount of taxes that a General Assembly dominated by urban area legislators’ control.


Commissioner Thompson gave three reasons for wanting to secede from the state of Maryland:


1.) Public Education – As a separate state, Frederick County may be financially better off to decline the federal funding of No Child Left Behind and the attached strings and conditions.


2.) Tax Dollars Stay Here – Frederick County would keep the tax revenue generated here (like the county share of the state highway user revenue) rather than having it shipped to Annapolis to be divvied up via the political process.


3.) State’s Unfunded Pension and Retiree Health Care Obligations – The General Assembly has a fiduciary responsibility to modify the retiree pension and health care benefit programs to place them on a sound financial footing. It has done so in the past. However, the legislature has yet to summon the will to do so.


Commissioner Thompson has been vilified for even raising the secession argument. Is he deserving of the criticism? Yes. It’s a shame that such an erudite mind chooses to propose a silly solution for a series of sound observations.


Think about his observations – who would disagree that public education, keeping tax dollars, and the state’s continued ignoring of unfunded pensions aren’t worth discussing and in need of strengthening?


If these observations are worth exploring (in varying degrees), then shouldn’t the approach be to present a logical solution? Should not the process be one of continued discussions with our state representatives, and hold their feet to the proverbial fire? Why come up with an extreme viewpoint (secession), when other viable option could work? It’s a pity when the proposed solution distorts the observations behind it. Unfortunately this perpetuates the notion that Frederick County is in some ways dysfunctional.


Tuesday, March 16 – Evening View


I had the good fortune of providing public comment on the suggested delay (again!) of funding for the addition/modernization of Lincoln Elementary School, where my wife teaches. The $24 million dollar construction project has been postponed in the current Capital Improvements Program until 2014.


The teachers and staff did a great job explaining to the commissioners that the conditions at Lincoln are worsening each year, and that another delay would hurt the morale of the teachers and staff, along with the students and families that have gone, or are going to, Lincoln.


By the time I spoke, the board had heard many Lincoln representatives speak their minds. I cut some of my comments because they would have been repetitive.


I focused on what I do with all issues. I suggested a potential solution based on discussions with many people from all sides, coupled with personal research. My suggestion is that they come up with a public/private partnership.


Look at what Nova Scotia did. In 1997, its unemployment rate was just over 10%, and it was in a distressed economy. So, Nova Scotia began one of the most ambitious programs to use public/private partnerships to build new schools. By the end of 1998, 41 new schools had been either completed or approved for construction.


How did they do this? Nova Scotia requested bids from developers to provide one or several school facilities built to its specifications. The developer furnished the desks, telephones, blackboards and computers, while the school system provided teachers, principals, and students.


The bidders competed on price, and the cost of the project was converted into a 20-year lease with annual rent payments equal to 85 percent of the cost of the project. In effect, the school system got to use the building for less than the cost to build and finance it, while the developer began the lease 15 percent in the hole.


In order for the developer to make up the difference in cost, the contract was structured so that the school system leased the building for specific hours, such as 7:30 A.M. to 3:30 P.M., Monday through Friday, August through June, as well as some off-hour periods.


I also suggested for the board’s consideration what Rosa Parks School in Portland, Oregon, did. The Portland Public Schools and the Housing Authority joined forces with The Boys & Girls Club and the City of Portland’s Community Center to create a two-acre educational campus. The school system developed a LEED-certified, sustainable building that today helps children learn, keeps them safe, and serves the community.


After all of the speakers, Commissioner Jan Gardner responded specifically to my suggested solution. She said that similar proposals have been made in the past, and have been filed under creative solutions. However, the private sector looks for profit, and there can be hidden costs, such as higher interest rates, maintenance issues, etc.


I think that every contract is negotiable, and the county should make every effort to negotiate in the best interests of the county and its citizens. Each contract should be taken on a case-by-case basis. Besides, just because it didn’t work in the past doesn’t mean that it couldn’t work today.


Commissioner Blaine Young liked the fact that I was thinking outside the box, and the idea should be looked at. Commissioners Kai Hagen, David Gray, and Thompson said nothing.


My hope is that our words in support of Lincoln don’t fall on deaf ears.


See you next week….


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