For more than two years, consultant Todd Black was there when frustrated Manchester officials needed answers to financial questions abouttheir $11 million sewage treatment plant expansion.
Black -- and his Delta Planning Associates Inc. of Bel Air, Harford County -- was as close as the telephone, always ready to make the 56-mile trip to the North Carroll town when a frustrated mayor or a confused council member needed to unscramble complicated federal grant formulas, apply for more state aid or interpret an environmental ruling.
But suddenly, in early June, Black wasn't available anymore.
"Now we're stuck doing his job," said David M. Warner, the town's projects administrator, who, since July, has more or less learned how to do Black's job. "We had no idea where he was. It's like he disappeared."
Shortly after cashing the town's check for $11,831.95 at The Forest Hill State Bank in Linthicum, Anne Arundel County, on June 12, the sometime photographer, exporter and landowner apparently relocated to Antigua, a town of 18,000 people west of Guatemala City.
The 43-year-old was contracted as grants consultant on Manchester's 10-year expansion project until the end of this month. He already had beenpaid more than $46,000 for being available.
"We were expecting him to be around," said Mayor Earl A. J. "Tim" Warehime Jr.
"He let us down."
Manchester's repeated calls went unanswered. By late June, Delta Inc.'s Bel Air phone number had been disconnected, bills forits services stopped coming in and Black didn't show up -- in his usual oxford shirt, tie, jeans and boots -- for monthly briefings.
Delta Inc. isn't doing any consulting these days -- something his customers said Black, its sole employee, didn't tell them. Customers likeManchester, Aberdeen, Brunswick, Chesapeake City and Frederick County.
"He left us high and dry," said John Kendall, manager for the Frederick County town of Brunswick. "When I last talked to him, he told me, 'I'll be in Guatemala for about two weeks. I'll be back for theend-of-year audit.' That was in June."
Black was the grants consultant as well as the engineering inspector for the town's $6.8 million sewage treatment plant. He also was contracted for grant work for the county's new Knoxville-area sewage plant. And he had done some grant work for a downtown rehabilitation project in the town.
"When he left, he didn't return some documents needed for that audit," Kendall said. "We had to spend time reconstructing them."
In ChesapeakeCity, Black was the grants administrator for the Cecil County town's$2.7 million sewage treatment plant.
George Keller, chief of the projects management division of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said Black's leaving could make the towns vulnerable during audits. If auditors are unhappy, Keller said, the towns could lose the amount of money paid to Black for his work.
"I hope we don't lose money," Manchester's Warehime said. "If we have problems with the audit and have to ante up, we would go the legal route."
While his leaving early without notification troubled clients, most said the quality of the work performed was not an issue.
"I know he did a real bang-up job," said Linda Boyer, former mayor of Mount Airy, where Black was a grants administrator in 1987 and 1988 for an annexation project in the South Carroll town."He was a whiz at answering questions and getting information."
In Manchester, it was Boyer's strong support of Black's work that led then-Mayor Elmer C. Lippy to hire him in1989.
"I didn't delve into his background too much because we were so desperate (for a consultant) at the time and so happy to get somebody," Lippy said. "I should have delved into it.
"We were misled. Instead of doing a job for the municipality, he did a job on the municipality."
In addition to Mount Airy and Manchester, Black also did work in Sykesville in the mid-1980s, overseeing grants used for Main Street revitalization.
Even though he left Manchester, Brunswick and Chesapeake City before final project audits were completed, officials in those towns say he performed most of the work for which hewas hired.
"He didn't stiff us on any work (on two grants worth about $1 million)," said Peter Dacey, administrator in Aberdeen, Harford County. "He wrapped up work on the last grant, the '86 grant, at the tail end of 1990."
He left the country without notice despite his ties to the area. Black had attended Bel Air High and took coursesat Harford Community College and Loyola College in Baltimore, according to his resume, which did not say if he graduated from any of them.
For 12 years, his resume said, he was in the grants planning andcommunity development field. He also was a "self-taught professionalphotographer" and a "professionally motivated self-starter."