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As Long as We Remember...

October 13, 2004

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.. *

John W. Ashbury

Taxpayers in Frederick County are about to take another hit, although from which direction is still a mystery.

With huge increases in the assessed value of all real property expected over the next three years, some elected officials are moving to deflect the impact on our citizens even if they hold the tax rates at current levels. Others are exploring avenues to spend every red cent they can - even before they have it in hand.

The most likely blow to the pocketbook of county residents will come with a decision by the Board of Education (BOE) to build a new headquarters downtown on Site G of the Carroll Creek project. This parcel is located at East South and South East streets across from Frederick Brick Works.

It doesn't seem prudent to remove another piece of valuable real estate from the property tax roles, although this site has been designated for government use for some time.

A little history lesson might be in order here. Back in 1987, Dr. Noel T. Farmer, who had just become superintendent of schools, began a campaign to have a new headquarters facility erected for Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS). It didn't begin to become reality until 1989 when the county commissioners funded a BOE-requested study of 115 East Church Street, which had been a school-used facility since 1900.

It was obvious before the $40,000 study commenced just what the result would be. According to the BOE the building needed "$4.3 million" in repairs and additions to become adequate. And even then the space wouldn't accommodate the 129 people housed there. (The number of administrators increased 24 percent in the 10 years prior to 1990.)

Wonder of wonders! Shortly after the space study was commissioned the idea surfaced for the county to buy the Frederick Electronics plant on Hayward Road, owned by Plantronics, Inc. It contained 72,000 square feet under roof and 7.1 acres of land. Negotiations for this purchase began as early as December 1989, before the $40,000 study was completed.

Sue Rovin, then president of the Board of Education, wrote County Commissioner President J. Anita Stup a letter in January 1990 outlining the BOE plans to leave downtown. Mrs. Stup asked if she could make that letter available to Frederick City officials and was given the go ahead. But a snafu developed and the city didn't learn of the BOE plans until March.

Mayor Paul P. Gordon was outraged. He believed then - and still does today - that the Board of Education must remain downtown if the city's core is to remain viable.

So, Mayor Gordon negotiated an agreement, which was subsequently signed by the BOE, the county commissioners and the mayor, which requires the BOE to retain at least a nucleus of its administrative staff at 115 East Church Street.

The BOE and the commissioners continued with their negotiations to purchase the Plantronics facility, eventually agreeing to pay $3.64 million. At the time educrats said the building was worth about $36 a square foot or $2.592 million, making the land worth $146,392.28 per acre. That seemed high in 1990, but not today.

At about the same time, the BOE, with commissioners' approval, were talking to the owners of a parcel know as the Ausherman-Willard property, which contained a 42,000 square foot warehouse and another 5.3 acres of land. What made it most attractive was that it was adjacent to the Plantronics property, and it would replace warehouse space the BOE was renting around the county.

Eventually the BOE and the county commissioners agreed to buy the Ausherman-Willard facility for $1.995 million. Adding that to the Plantronics purchase price, we find taxpayers forked over $5.635 million for the two properties.

As the purchase was being completed, the BOE told the commissioners it would cost in excess of $3 million to "renovate" the Plantronics building before its staff could move in.

So, over the past 14 years county taxpayers have shelled out more than $10 million to renovate a property that was in such poor condition at the time of purchase that a new roof had to be installed shortly thereafter. And a 72,000 square foot roof doesn't come cheap.

And to top it all off, the county and the BOE failed to purchase the parking lot across Thomas Johnson Drive from the building to accommodate BOE employees.

Hal Keller, then the budget director for the Frederick County government, lobbied long and hard to get the commissioners to purchase the Plantronics property. It is somewhat unclear exactly what his role in the purchase of the Ausherman-Willard warehouse and land was. He had a business partner at the time - outside his government job - who just happened to be representing the owners of the warehouse as their real estate agent - one Galen Clagett, now 3rd District delegate to the General Assembly.

It wasn't long before Mr. Keller got his reward from the BOE and Dr. Farmer for his efforts in the Plantronics purchase. At the beginning of the next fiscal year in July 1990, he was hired as the budget director for Frederick County Public Schools with a whopping $15,000 a year pay raise.

Almost as soon as he arrived to be superintendent in 1996, Dr. Jack Dale began lobbying for a new headquarters facility. His proposal gained momentum as each year passed. He even negotiated with Marc Silverman for space in the Carroll Creek Site A building slated to be erected behind the Court Street parking deck. That led to a loss of face from Dr. Dale with County Commissioners Jan Gardner and David Gray, both of whom he had assured he was NOT negotiating with Silverman.

But Dr. Dale was unsuccessful in convincing a majority of the BOE that such a new facility was necessary in light of the demanding space needs of the children in the classroom. Now, however, FCPS has about five percent more permanent seats than students. And that percentage will continue to increase as each new school opens over the next five to 10 years.

So, now we are hearing more about the Site G proposal. The BOE is even talking about getting $5.2 million from the sale of the Plantronics property and the facility at 115 East Church Street. The problem is that the BOE doesn't own either. They belong to the county and what happens to the proceeds of such a sale is up to the commissioners.

A disturbing aspect of the BOE proposal, admittedly in its early stages, is that the $18 million cost of the new building on Site G will be paid for with the proceeds of the sale of the two properties and then with monies from the operating budget. Aren't operating budget funds supposed to go to the EDUCATION of the children?

Local officials can talk all they want about "buying" another site on which to build a palatial new headquarters. However, there is no need to do that.

The county already owns more than 10 adjoining acres on Hayward Road and Thomas Johnson Drive, which is entirely large enough for the proposed new center of operations. And while construction is on going, the educrats can remain in their present facility, the old Plantronics building. And when the new building is completed, that building can be torn down and a parking lot built to handle that need.

Site G isn't large enough to accommodate a new BOE structure and the parking necessary to handle all the administrators and their support personnel. So, the BOE is talking about building another parking deck adjacent. It would seem that a single level, macadam parking lot would be a whole lot less costly to construct than any size parking deck.

Then, of course, there is the issue of the BOE leaving downtown. But here is another fly in that ointment. Within preliminary plans for the new structure is retail space to be rented to private business to help defray the cost of the new building. So, if that space is rented to a restaurant and small shops, do you think BOE employees are going to walk downtown to shop?

And, besides, if they build on Hayward Road they won't have to build that first floor for retail space, thus saving millions of dollars.

This whole situation is a long way from fruition. But taxpayers have to be aware of what is going on behind the scenes and the history of the situation. Keep a watchful eye or else your wallet will disappear before you have a chance to put any money in it.

* Robert Herrick (1591-1674): To the Virgins to Make Much of Time

Woodsboro - Walkersville Times
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