MPA funding plea for port greeted coolly by senators Panel sharply questions request for $7.4 million

March 01, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr. | John H. Gormley Jr.,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- Brendan W. O'Malley, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, begged state senators yesterday for continued financial support of port projects, but his requests drew a chilly reception.

"I would plead with you for support of this port," Mr. O'Malley said to the Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee with oversight responsibility for the port.

In the past decade, the General Assembly has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funds to improve port facilities. Seagirt Marine Terminal, which opened last fall, cost the state more than $250 million alone.

For the coming fiscal year, the port agency is requesting $7.4 million in capital funds, less than half the amount approved for the current fiscal year, which ends in June.

In a report to the Senate subcommittee, the port agency said the dramatic reduction in capital spending "will reduce the MPA's ability to respond to market opportunities and our current customers facility needs."

Mr. O'Malley told the subcommittee yesterday that the $7.4 million in capital funds would not be "enough for even the basic requirements."

Apparently unsympathetic, Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, said, "We've gone about the last mile on this port."

Mr. O'Malley responded that things were looking up. Two steamship lines announced this week that they were increasing their service from Baltimore, and "1991 has the potential to be a damn good year for us," he said, noting that cargo levels in January were up substantially from those of a year ago. "There are signs of turning already."

Mr. Smelser, citing the port's labor disputes in recent years, said, "You have to think customers are gun-shy about what goes on in the port of Baltimore."

The harshest criticism by any of the six panel members came from Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel. "I'm not for spending another bent farthing in capital," he declared.

He was also harshly critical of the Port Administration's presentation. He was unhappy over Mr. O'Malley's inability to say precisely what projects would be financed with the $7.4 million in capital funds.

And he sharply scolded the MPA for presenting figures demonstrating the economic benefits the port generates for the state -- including $915.5 million in payroll, $67 million in state and local taxes and $1.9 billion in revenue for businesses.

"We all know what the impact of the port is," Mr. Cade said. "I'm a little offended by going through this kindergarten exercise. It's just aggravating."

One senator did express satisfaction, albeit sardonically, with one part of the port's budget presentation. Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, said he was happy that the Port Administration had decided to follow the recommendation of the legislators' staff budget analyst that it drop its requests for more than $913,000 to fund merit increases for MPA employees and incentives for MPA managers.

"None is the right figure," he said.

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