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Cecil County Council OKs Basell Property for New VoTech School; Classes Could Begin in Early 2015

September 17, 2013
By Nancy Schwerzler

After years of attempts to find a cost-effective solution to the shortage of vocational and technical education slots for Cecil County public school students, the County Council Tuesday night voted to approve a plan for a new $18.9 million votech school at the 91-acre Basell property in Elkton.

The Council’s 3-2 vote was on legislation to authorize the schools to proceed with an option to acquire the property, leading to a subsequent purchase upon completion of engineering and ‘due diligence’ evaluations of the site and its existing 158,000-square foot, two story facility—including 18,750 square feet of modernized scientific laboratories.

Voting for the project were Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) and Councilors Alan McCarthy (R-1) and Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2). Opposing the Basell site acquisition were Councilors Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3).

“I don’t wish that it fails,” Broomell said of the tech school, but “I don’t think this is the way it should have been done.” Broomell had advocated expanding the existing tech school on its North East site, including use of modular or portable classrooms.

“This is a great opportunity to train and educate our youth,” Hodge said. “We have been shortchanging these students.”

For many years, there have been more students seeking vo-tech classes than the part-time, limited 45-year-old school in North East has been able to provide. There has been a consistent waiting list of at least 150 students for tech classes, and many students graduate from county high schools without ever getting into the tech classes they want. And the old tech school, which looks like a cinder-block prison, does not have the facilities and labs for many of the high-tech training businesses want in their future employees.

The Basell site, built by a pharmaceutical firm as its headquarters before mergers prompted a move out of state, was originally valued at more than $20 million when it was put on the market for sale in 2006. But in the economic recession its asking price was slashed to $6.5 million—an attractive prospect that piqued the interest of CCPS.

But the former county Board of Commissioners controlled by the Three Amigos political faction of Broomell, Dunn and former Commissioner James Mullin refused even to consider a purchase last year. (Hodge and then-Commissioner Tari Moore strongly supported the Basell project, and upon becoming County Executive Moore worked with CCPS officials to push the project forward.)

But a Baltimore County real estate investment firm, Blue & Obrecht Realty, and a partnership of Baltimore area investors snapped up the Basell site for just $5 million in April. The new owners immediately re-listed it for sale at $12 million, apparently hoping to get a quick, “flipper” profit without actually developing the site or finding a paying tenant.

CCPS got the purchase price down to $8.25 million, plus a $60,000 a month “lease” arrangement for one year ($720,000) for a total cost of $8.97 million. That yielded a nearly $4 million gain for the real estate investors and Cecil County ended up having to pay more that it would have if the Three Amigos had allowed the schools to act last year.

Apart from the basic costs of acquisition of the Basell property, renovation costs to convert it to school usage are estimated at $9.9 million. That would yield a total expenditure of more than $18.8 million to develop the new tech school. State school construction funds would contribute $4 million of that cost—and CCPS previously offered to contribute $1.5 million from its reserve funds—for a new net county government cost of about $13.3 million.

That figure is vastly cheaper than previous estimates of at least $40 million to build a new votech school from scratch. And the 91 acres of the Basell site are expected to provide added benefits to the county, such as parkland, athletic fields and potential new business and economic development opportunities.

Dr. D’Ette Devine, superintendent of schools, was elated after the Tuesday evening vote, saying, “This is a thrilling moment.” She said school officials have already been having discussions with an architect to explore renovation designs for the property and that CCPS hoped to have the first votech students begin classes at the site in January, 2015.

Meanwhile, members of the Campaign For Liberty ( C4L) conservative group sought to drum up opposition to the Basell project in the final hours leading up to the vote. A bundle of 52 postcards was hand delivered to the Council– bearing the logo of the C4L group and noting the cards had been paid for by the group– stating that bonds that would pay for the school and other projects “would plunge Cecil County deeper into debt.” The cards appeared to have been signed by the same person, with each name written in the same black ink and the same capitalized block letters style.

At a recent public hearing on the school proposal, 25 people spoke in favor of the Basell purchase and no speakers opposed it.

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6 Responses to Cecil County Council OKs Basell Property for New VoTech School; Classes Could Begin in Early 2015

  1. David Neff on September 18, 2013 at 9:02 am

    YES! Thank you County Council! Ms. Broomell and Mr. Dunn, we’re coming for you :D

  2. Joe C on September 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    Correction to the story: Bassel was a chemical research facility making polymers and conducting pilot production. The company … merged with another company who paid a premium for the stock of Bassel. The question remains to be answered: Is their any residual contamination from these activities.

  3. Rebecca Demmler on September 22, 2013 at 9:38 am

    I’m sure this will be investigated during the vetting process. Joe, did you bring this up from a genuine apprehension, or as a creative ploy attempting to invent opposition where none presently exists?

    I can only hope that you will step back and seriously analyze your motive in this maneuver. Please acknowledge that despite your own views on the makeup of the council (I suspect, for you, this is the underlying issue here) that the purchase of Basell has the overwhelming support of the community.

    Please don’t attempt to create disagreement; instead, recognize when it is time to yield to majority will.

    • Joe C on September 23, 2013 at 4:49 am

      Becky,
      You should know the answer to your question. I did bring this up before last weeks vote, at a previous council meeting. I guess you would not have known since I did not see you there.

      I am against adding to the county debt, not against the school. You can only buy what you can afford, not everything you want. I suspect the so called “support” will rapidly fade next July when the tax bills come out. Explain to me where the money will come from, this year we had to raid the “rainy day” fund for 4 million dollars.

      Add to this the other 57 million in spending that were approved by the “Free Spending Three” and it is certain taxes have no way to go but up. Our debt limit will be very close(9%) to the limit of 10% after all this spending. I asked the question via email to council members if they would increase their personnel debt by 50% by investing in Cecil County. Still waiting for an answer. It is easy spending other people’s money.

      • Ron Lobos on September 24, 2013 at 5:00 am

        Joe, I have to join you in saying that I am for the new school but am greatly concerned about the added debt. Although this new facility will be part of the CCPS, it will not be paid for entirely by their current $47M budget.

        The school has a fund balance of approximately $8.5M but is only contributing $1.5M [of that] toward the project. The state is putting in $4.5M. Deduct this from the nearly $19M price tag and this shows a $13M windfall (GIFT) to the school system that will be paid for through a bond that they will not be held responsible for paying any part of.

        In all fairness, they will be dropping a lease on a storage facility worth $250,000 a year, but there is no guarantee that they won’t find a way to spend this money instead of giving it back to the county.

        Fiscal responsibility is the most important responsibility needed in government. Our government needs to exercise this if we are to be fair to our citizens.

        • Joe C on September 26, 2013 at 8:35 pm

          Ron, agree. The purchase price is one thing but the operating and maintenance cost will dwarf the purchase cost over time. I still just want to know how we as a county are going to pay for all the spending(A.K.A “investment”), either income or real estate taxes must go up, either by increasing the rate or the base.

          Show the citizens the numbers. Also beware of the big deception being spread tha t “we will not raise your taxes next year.” Well I could have told you that ten years ago because it will be one month before the primary. Ask what will happen the year after that or the next year???

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