A caving on Bennett Middle School?

Update: As projected, District 2 Council member Stevie Prettyman is indeed the one who sold us out in a 4-3 vote. She joined District 4 appointee John Hall, at-large member Matt Holloway, and District 1 Democrat Sheree Sample-Hughes in voting to commit the county to years of debt. Hope the squeaky wheel minority is happy.

According to published reports in both the blogosphere and mainstream media, Wicomico County Council is holding yet another meeting tomorrow morning to discuss the stalled Bennett Middle School project. County Executive Rick Pollitt has already asked County Council to allot a 7 cent per $100 increase in the property tax to help pay for the new school without presenting the remainder of his operating budget. (The phrase for that where I come from is “a pig in a poke.”)

First of all, it’s notable that the meeting will be a daytime meeting rather than an evening meeting, since I thought the intention of having night meetings would be to encourage participation. Perhaps that time worked better within the schedule of the few squeaky wheels who don’t understand that people are tapped out, so no means no. For working folks, it’s not that easy.

And since it will be a legislative session, this will give at least one of the four who originally voted to hold off on the school until funds are more available the opportunity to cave in to the caterwauling of these parents who are more than willing to pay higher taxes. News flash: there is nothing stopping those in Parents in Action from stroking a check to make up the difference in their tax rates; however, the rest of us may want to see a better funding plan for a more affordable school that won’t put those same children who attend the school into decades of watching the county pay for it.

G.A. Harrison opines in his piece that District 2 Council member Stevie Prettyman is the weakest link among the four, and that over the last week there has been a “sometimes mudslinging” campaign against the four who voted to be fiscally prudent – another I spoke to agreed that the County Council is getting “hate mail.” Perhaps supporters of fiscal sanity were a little too complacent.

Of course, there is the slim chance that we are the recipient of some fiscal miracle and the county can afford this project without saddling the next generation in debt or, more importantly, raising taxes on a population which is already overburdened. Harrison suffers from one possible inaccuracy in his report, though – I believe a seven cent rise in the property tax homeowners would result in a staggering 17.5 cent per $100 increase in the personal property tax Wicomico County businesses are saddled with. Certainly local businesses can weather that increase, no problem. </sarc>

Failing that miracle, it bears noting that a County Council which bends whichever way the wind blows is also subject to a primary challenge next time around. I can guarantee you local Democrats will give no credit for voting to raise taxes in the next election and will instead use the 2014 campaign to paint County Council as the obstructionists who rode Rick Pollitt out of a job.

When the time is right, we can build Bennett Middle School – if the state has it as its priority to build schools there will be no “end of the line.” I say call their bluff and hold the line on county spending.

If you can attend the County Council meeting, by all means do so. We need to support the fiscally conservative majority and make sure they can weather the storm presented by a few malcontents who seem to think a new school will solve all our educational problems.

11 thoughts on “A caving on Bennett Middle School?”

  1. “Harrison suffers from one possible inaccuracy in his report, though – I believe a seven cent rise in the property tax homeowners would result in a staggering 17.5 cent per $100 increase in the personal property tax Wicomico County businesses are saddled with.”

    It is possible that you are correct. However, I took my figures from the Wicomico County website. According to them, the current real property rate is $0.759 / $100. The personal property rate is 250% of the real property rate – $1.8975.

    If the real property rate is increased by $0.07, that would yield a rate of $0.829 / $100. That is actually an increase of 9.22% The personal property rate would rise by the same percentage.

    Here is where businesses get hit very hard compared with individual homeowners: because assessments are declining, an increase of 7 cents in the real property rate would yield an increase of only 2% for the AVERAGE homeowner. This is because of the revenue cap. However, there is no declining assessment issue when dealing with personal property. True, a business’s personal property does appreciate every year. It is also a basic accounting assumption that plant and equipment are replaced as it is being depreciated. So, if a business’s personal property remains flat from this year to next, their tax bill will rise by 9.22%.

    We also need to remember that Wicomico County is the only locality in Maryland that has an inventory tax. This is part of the personal property tax return. If you are holding $10,000 in inventory, you pay tax on 35% of that inventory at the regular personal property rate. If the 7 cent increase is enacted, that business will pay over $72 just on their inventory. There are some businesses in Wicomico County that are holding MILLIONS of dollars in inventory. That adds THOUSANDS of dollars to their tax bill.

  2. I think the personal property rate always stays at 2.5 times the real property rate – 7 x 2.5 = 17.5, if my public school math is correct.

    Pollitt is maxing out the rate this time. Seems to me we held constant yield last year and the year before, but this year Pollitt is going for the maximum. To achieve constant yield he can raise rates only 3.9 cents (0.759 to 0.798.) So presumably the other 3.1 cents is to add the 2% he’s allowed under the cap.

  3. You’re right Michael. For some reason I originally read your 17.5 cents as 17.5 percent. You are also correct in your comment that the personal property rate is always 250% of the real property rate. That is the current state law.

    However, several counties have exception in the statute that permit them to “de-couple” the two rates. Wicomico County has also requested that the law be changed for them as well. This would allow an increase in the real property rate (within the bounds of the cap) without necessarily negatively impacting business.

  4. Mrs. Bartkovich and Mr. Joe Holloway both voted in favor of the initial bond funding of Bennett Middle School in the amount of about 8 million dollars. The construction of a new BMS and demolition of the old school were part of the Bennett High School plans approved many years ago. For Bartkovich and Holloway to turn their backs on the project now is spineless and hypocritical to say the least. To have a school building that is a known health and security risk with 11 portable classrooms surrounding it is completely unacceptable in our community. It is easy for those of your ilk who do not have a stake in our schools to suggest that the investment should not be made. The families of the 14,600 students in our schools would disagree.

    Somewhere in your posts, you suggested that the County Council maintained the constant yield rate for property tax over the past two years. This is not correct. In the most recent budget, the constant yield would have been achieved with an increase of 3.84 cents per $100. The County Council cut the budget and approved an increase of 1 cent per $100. Several local business persons encouraged the council to maintain the constant yield during public comments, but they were ignored. The quality of life in Wicomico county is declining, and if the council continues its attack on education and other investments, our county will never recover from the economic downturn.

  5. That’s what happens when one goes by memory because I thought I recalled all the discussion and my recollection was that a nickel was the allowable increase under the revenue cap, but instead they maintained it to the constant yield. I stand corrected on the numbers.

    However, I disagree with the remainder of your premise.

    There is only so much that an average family can afford to give in taxes before they decide to go somewhere else. Honestly, I don’t think anyone on County Council doesn’t want to build BMS – perhaps they would be more comfortable with a Chevrolet design rather than the Cadillac we were presented, but I would venture to say that if money were no object they would be right there shoveling the dirt. But money IS the object.

    There is a big difference between the time when Bennett High School was approved and now. People who may have thought we were experiencing a little economic bump in the road back when the high school was approved have now learned we are in the midst of a long-term economic slump, when each level of government is dealing with massive debt and not enough revenue to pay it back. Soon the state will be increasing our taxes because they don’t have the money to pay for all that they want and they don’t have the courage to tell the spoiled brats “no.” Same goes for the federal government, except they don’t even go by the pretense of approving a budget anymore.

    And there has to be something said about the idea that if BMS is a “known health and security risk” why wasn’t this problem addressed instead of simply using that and other undone maintenance as a cudgel to get a new building? The problem is that, by using such a large part of our bonding capacity to build BMS, where would they get the money to do needed maintenance at other schools? It seems to me that the WCBOE has this thought that maybe if the buildings fall apart a little more, Uncle Sugar Daddy in Annapolis will sprinkle a little more fairy dust and give us new ones.

  6. According to Daily Times reporting, the county is currently borrowing 38% of the chartered debt limit. Even if $30 million were added in one year, which it won’t be, the amount would still be less than 50% of the debt limit. The county is far from overextended and will be retiring $10 Million per year of past debt during the time that bonds would be sold for Bennett Middle. A decision to build the school is financially sound.

    Based on County Council records, opponents to building the school say that the price tag is too high. None of the opponents are experts in education technology or school construction, and they never offer specific items which are extravagant. You have experience in architecture and engineering, so why don’t you look at the plans and tell us where you could cut $5 million from the project and still meet the education technology and state BOE building requirements along with any other standards for the project. It is time for someone to back up there argument.

    Many people go before the council and support cuts to education with a seeming disregard for the consequences. The WCBOE has experienced drastic cuts over the past two years, and is struggling to meet the needs of our students. The average high school graduation rate for Maryland public schools is 87%. I will close by asking you what you think an acceptable graduation rate would be for Wicomico County under recent budget cuts? I think many people would be shocked by the reality that exists in the face of further declines in funding for education.

  7. Actually, if the state’s prevailing wage and LEED Certification rules were waived, the project would be significantly more affordable. In fact, when Ohio did that in the late 1990’s they found:

    As part of the exemption, the legislature mandated that its Legislative Services Commission (LSC) report on the impact of the exemption on school construction costs, quality, and construction wages after five years. The LSC submitted its report in May 2002. The LSC estimated that the exemption had resulted aggregate savings of $487.9 million (10.7%) in school construction project costs between 1997 and 2001 without producing any discernable diminution in construction quality or negative impact on construction wages.

    Granted, the study had its limitations but even a 5 percent savings – which I think is quite doable – would cut about $4 million from the project. And I’m sure I can eliminate more if I had the plans in front of me. Many of the “standards” are added for political correctness and have nothing to do with the educational project.

    I worry less about the acceptable graduation rate than I do what the kids who are graduating have learned. That is superfluous to the Bennett discussion, but the potential of needing millions of dollars annually in the county’s budget just to take on this additional bonding is worrisome in this economic era.

  8. I guess the fact that you think the replacement of Bennett Middle School has nothing to do with the future graduation rate is part of the problem. There is a certain number of the 900 students that go throughout that school every year that will not succeed because of a lack of technology or quality facilities. In Wicomico County, the high school graduation rate is 77%. That means that roughly 237 of the 1030 freshman that entered high school this year will not graduate. The majority of the County Coucil that continues to attack the education budget is in the process of destroying the public school system in our county. I’m not sure who they think they are representing, but it sure isn’t the families of the 14,600 students in our schools. They are not providing any hope for the 1230 teachers who have made a commitment to educate the children of our county. The majority of the council seems only to be determined to exercise their strong hand without regard for the consequences of their actions. Mr. Holloway admitted on camera at the end of the first work session that resulted in a no vote on the BMS project that he was voting no because his ego was bruised as a member of the school building commission where his opinion was in the minority and he did not get his way. He did not vote no on the merits of the project. He voted no for personal reasons, and I question whether he is fit as a leader of the Wicomico County Council. Mrs. Bartkovich complained about having to deal with the issue outside of the normal budget process. The situation was created because the council, then under the leadership of Bartkovich, failed to move forward on the Bennett Middle project during the most recent budget process. Mrs. Bartkovich and Mr. Holloway both voted to fund the initial stages of the BMS project, but they have now failed to do the right thing for the citizens they claim to represent.

    Spending cuts are a popular theme for Republicans at the federal level and can be justified by deficits in the trillions and discretionary spending that leaves plenty of room for reductions. These same principles can’t be applied at the local level where every cut means real reductions in education, public safety and the overall quality of life in the county.

  9. Certainly spending cuts can be justified. There is only so much available money out there.

    Let me ask you this. What percentage of the budget do YOU think should be spent on education in this county? And when you answer that question, ponder this: would additional spending break the barrier those 237 freshmen who entered high school have from graduating? I say it wouldn’t.

    I don’t think there is a correlation between spending and learning; otherwise, the kids who go to inner-city schools would be Ivy League candidates and those who go to private school (or are homeschooled) the ditch diggers. We know the opposite tends to be the case.

    As I said somewhere back in my comments about this whole thing, I don’t think anyone on County Council doesn’t want to build BMS, nor do they want anything less than the best for our kids. But I happen to agree with what is now the minority (sadly, we found Stevie Prettyman doesn’t have the strongest of core beliefs) that the cost would be too high in this economic downturn. I don’t think the kids who go to BMS are at much more of a disadvantage than those who go to Wicomico Middle (which is much older) or any other middle school. Certainly they’re no worse off than the era when my generation was in middle school, when I attended a school which ranged between 25 and 70 years old, depending on where you were standing in it. Obviously you’ll argue that’s apples and oranges because school is so much different now, but I disagree – the purpose of the building is to provide a place for classroom instruction. No more and no less.

    I suppose what rankles me the most about this whole argument is the premise that we are something less of a county if we don’t have all new schools. Obviously I had a different definition of “quality of life” than others did when I moved here, for it didn’t matter which school district I settled into. But the reason I came here was to take a job, and what drives people away isn’t the quality of the schools but the lack of economic opportunity. Once that problem is settled then we can address the need for new schools, but until then we have a lot of other areas which we need to spend our money on as well and not a lot of prospective tax revenue to do so. Businesses are looking at quite a soaking if we indeed raise the property tax seven cents per $100 because their personal property tax will leap 17.5 cents per $100. That’s a sobering increase.

    But apparently some in this area are flush with money because they wanted a new school. Feel free to stroke a check for what you’re willing to pay.

Comments are closed.