CAMBRIDGE — The Dorchester County Council played to a packed house on May 5. The first of two public hearings slated for the Tuesday meeting was the FY2016 draft budget and appropriations ordinance. Proponents for new North Dorchester High School (NDHS) construction filled the room. Council President Ricky Travers laid down the rule: Each speaker had a 5 minute limit. A timer ensured compliance. He explained that only written comments will be accepted until the final vote.
Dr. Henry Wagner, county school superintendent, asked the council to take the “next steps necessary to replace North Dorchester High School with a newly-constructed facility.” He urged that the previously approved inclusion of $1.4 million for planning and design should remain in the capital budget. He noted a new building is the only “viable” solution and explained that the school system and county officials have unsuccessfully sought alternative funding sources to relieve local government of the full multi-million dollar burden.
Dr. Wagner explained the project must move forward so other long-term capital needs can be addressed. He said that the school system “has shown its commitment to responsible stewardship” in many ways, including increasing the planning phase to two years to give “breathing room for debt service.” He explained how the system has saved money within approved funding.
In FY2005, savings included: $41,640 for a windows and doors project in Vienna; $24,493 for Hurlock Elementary School’s HVAC project; and, $93,375 for the new Mace’s Lane Middle School. In FY2007, $33,074 was saved for Hurlock’s roof replacement; in FY2012, $100,000 for North Dorchester Middle School construction; and savings of $2,188,942 for the technology center. Technology costs have been transferred from the capital to the operating budget, including: $800,000 in FY2015 and a projected $640,000 in FY2016.
Using grant funds saved the county $5,470,260 since FY2010 and an additional $600,000 in grants is anticipated in FY2016. Dr. Wagner said the total savings of $10,016,784 shows a “commitment to responsible management that will continue with this new project.”
Speakers supporting the new school construction included: School board members Glen Bramble, Glen Payne, and LeOtha Hull; president of retired educators association Laura Layton; and former board of education member Lorraine Henry.
Kimberly Smith, county resident and mother of a high school student, supports a new building to “teach our children that we value them.”
Libby Nagel noted that “North Dorchester High School was old when I went there.” What about the older generation,” she asked. “Are they throwaway people?” She stated that a school is “definitely needed,” but, citing senior citizens and others who struggle to survive, “raising property taxes is not the way to do it.”
Resident Bill Windsor acknowledged that the building appears to need replacement rather than refurbishment. But, he said, “If we’re going to appropriate ‘x’ amount of money to build a new school can we also think about allocating money in the budget to take care of the building?” He suggested a building that is easy to maintain and update annually “so at the end of 30 or 40 years we won’t be spending that kind of money. It’s one thing to raise taxes on a working individual but once you retire, get on a fixed income, it makes it really difficult to survive.” Mr. Windsor noted that replacing schools on a schedule means increasing taxes every time. By including the maintenance “we wouldn’t have to raise county taxes.”
A second budget hearing is slated for May 12.
Nicholette Smith-Bligen, director of the county’s department of Social Services, asked the council to grant the agency’s request for a matching contribution of $10,000. The funds would permit the public agency to apply for four-year national accreditation. Ms. Smith-Bligen said that approval establishes “public confidence in the services and programs we provide.” The process provides continuous review and assessment of the department’s policies and practices.
In reviewing community impact from a program and fiscal perspective, the director said, “Approximately $35 million could be attributed to customer spending from benefits received from our agency that is ultimately being reinvested back in the community.” She added that accreditation, a 12-18 month process, can strengthen businesses, strengthen property values, and could open the door for grant funding and public/private partnerships.
Resident Libby Nagel explained that an allocation in the draft budget of $300,000 for a dog kennel for animal control might be used instead “to invest in a proper building for those animals.” She added, “By no means is it the sheriff’s problem, but the animals need new housing.” Additionally, she suggested that installing carpeting in the Planning & Zoning office should be re-evaluated. The carpet, unlike the current uncarpeted floors, will show wear from foot traffic and damage by contractors with heavy boots and dirt.
Final voting on the budget bill is slated for May 19.