Tax Money Up In Smoke

July 22, 1992

When children used to collect UNICEF donations at Halloween, their cartons typically listed how much food your pennies would buy for children in the Third World. Here's what $1.6 million in Baltimore County tax revenue that's been budgeted to extinguish the stump dump that's been smoldering for 17 months at the western edge of the county could have bought that instead:

* 51 new teachers.

* 7 new patrol cars, complete with the 35 uniformed officers to man the cruisers round the clock.

* 2 school roof replacements.

* 78,000 library books.

* 40 modular classrooms.

If that's not enough to make you mad, consider that the $1.6 million the county is spending to suppress the stump dump fire is just the beginning. Officials hesitate to predict a total cost for the job, which could take two years, but the stump dump owner, James F. Jett, believes it will be five times that.

Neighbors began complaining about Mr. Jett's operation not long after he started collecting tree stump debris from builders on about 35 of his 215 acres in the early 1980s.

County and state officials later tried to regulate the operation, but the horse was out of the barn. This spring, county Circuit Court Judge James T. Smith Jr. ruled that the county must put out the fire.

Forced to play catch-up on this issue through the years, county officials dealt with it like a person searching for a light switch in the dark. The latest stumble came in recent months after County Executive Roger B. Hayden floated an ill-conceived and ill-received trial balloon that he would buy or condemn the property, possibly for a park. He very quietly deflated that plan. The opening of bids for the work has also been delayed for revisions several times, and won't occur until September or later.

Landfills for construction debris may be a necessary service. But because no one apparently had oversight over Mr. Jett when he began building his mountain of stumps at his Granite farm, the operation's problems have ballooned the county's equivalent of the savings and loan crisis: Taxpayers are going to pay a hefty sum to clean up a mess that has its roots in a prior lack of regulation.

In a couple years, after Baltimore County has spent millions to shovel out 500,000 cubic yards of soil and stumps, Mr. Jett may have already begun re-accepting stumps by then. Only then will county taxpayers enjoy the benefits of having their future tax dollars spent on schools and police and books instead of on tons of smoldering stumps.

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