WHAT'S THIS about Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen riding high with a fleet of Lincoln town cars and a flock of detectives protecting him?
"Total nonsense," Rasmussen retorted. Such charges are "political rhetoric" designed, he said, to divert attention from his record of accomplishment in an election year.
What about those alleged PeterKumpa200 political appointees? That's another political sling aimed at him, Rasmussen said. "I don't know where they are," he countered.
Well, what about the county's Office of Communications with the $650,000 budget that's alleged to be his personal public relations firm? The office's budget is $400,000, Rasmussen replied, and it's staffed not by 11 people, but by six people "pulled together" from other offices for greater efficiency.
If the communications office had really been a vehicle for personal flackery, Rasmussen might not be suffering from the kind of damning political attacks that are cropping up in this election year. The 43-year-old county executive isn't a back-slapping extrovert. He's a cautious, pipe-smoking managerial sort most at home sorting through the myriad details of local government.
Yes, he does drive a Lincoln, which is a big car. So did all his predecessors. It's a big county and Rasmussen puts 100,000 miles on it every two years.
"It doesn't make any difference to me what car I drive," Rasmussen said. But with his 14-to-16-hour days, he explained, the larger car is safer and allows him to go through mail and telephone calls as he travels. And yes, he has a bodyguard of two detectives, just like his predecessors.
Rasmussen has been both praised and criticized for the landscaping of the Towson Court House grounds. What most people don't understand, he explained, is that most of the costs came from business and other contributions, not the county.
Rasmussen deplores the fact that the political sniping at his supposed "extravagance" has diverted attention from his performance. "I believe in accountability, as I did when I ran in 1986," he said. "I believe we have a strong message to send to the voters.
"A lot of the anger and frustration today is a delayed response to Reaganism," Rasmussen said. "Ten years ago we were told everything was fine," he continued, "but everything isn't fine." He recited economic woes from a tripling of the national debt to an economic slowdown that has turned into recession. "People are very frustrated with Washington and they are misdirecting it to everyone in office."
Washington's problems, said Rasmussen, have forced the county into "economic siege." Over the past four years, the county has lost some $50 million in federal aid. State mandates that counties build their own schools and jails have piled on another $14 million in annual costs. At the same time, Rasmussen said, demands for county services have increased.
In the past two years, for example, emergency 911 calls have jumped by 26,000. Ambulance runs have gone up by 5,000. The library system, which already ranked first in the country in book circulation, expanded 34 percent in two years. And with more people, there has been more garbage to collect, more roads and sewer lines to maintain. For 14 years, the county had declining school enrollments; in the past three years that trend has reversed, putting more pressure on the county budget.
Rasmussen is convinced he has handled the problem of overcrowding in schools as well as the county growth issue. He points to an award that named him "the most valuable public servant" in the country for managing both environmental concerns and growth. Baltimore is the only county with its own environmental protection and resource management agency.
He points to other accomplishments: a revised master plan for growth; a tax rate 24 cents lower than four years ago; the county's triple-A bond rating that makes it one of 11 out of the nation's 3,600 counties that is rated so highly; services that are provided with less money per capita than any other county and well below both state and national averages. On budget growth in real dollars, he said, it was no more than 3 percent -- far lower than any major county.
Rasmussen said that he was the only elected official last year to argue that the property tax rate was unfair because taxes should be based on ability to pay. He has been trying to get enabling legislation to take pressure off property taxes while capping assessment increases at 4 percent for residential property. Some 49 percent of the elderly, he said, never pay taxes and not one has ever lost a home because of them. No negative campaigning, says Rasmussen. He stands on his record.