Crofton spending called into question

January 21, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

Crofton civic leaders may be spending money beyond the authority granted them by county government, according to the county attorney.

County Attorney Judson P. Garrett Jr. said Crofton's special tax district cannot pay for programs without getting permission from the County Council, an opinion that could force the community to re-examine its pending $546,000 budget and doom its embattled Human Services Department.

In a letter to County Councilwoman Virginia P. Clagett, Mr. Garrett recommended that Crofton "seek substantive legislation expressly authorizing any improvement, program or service" that is not listed by the County Council, which grants the tax district its powers.

The opinion will be circulated at the Crofton Civic Association board of directors meeting on Monday.

The board approved the 1995 financial blueprint last week by a 6-to-5 vote, and must submit it to the county for approval by Jan. 31. The budget is scheduled for public review on Wednesday.

One member of the board of directors said the opinion could call into question the legality of Crofton's paid psychological counselor in the Human Services Department.

The position has been hotly debated in the community for years and has so far been justified under the broad terms of the county law that established the tax district.

Martin A. Szostek, secretary of the civic association and an opponent of the Human Services Department, requested the county attorney's review through Ms. Clagett, D-West River, who represents Crofton.

Mr. Szostek said he made his request as a private citizen, not as a board member.

"The question is, 'Is what we are doing proper under the law?' " Mr. Szostek said. "That's all I asked. I don't know why in two decades no one has reviewed Crofton's budget practices."

Crofton leaders empowered

The County Council established Crofton's special tax district two decades ago and gave local leaders powers that enable them to run the community of 9,000 residents like a small city.

The law that gives Crofton its right to tax property at 28 cents per $100 of assessed value is specific in some areas and broad in others.

Money must be spent for a public purpose and have a specific benefit for the property. Under the legislation enacted for Crofton, the community can provide police protection, maintain public areas and keep gas lights in proper working order.

But the law also allows the community to provide "such services as the board of directors of the Crofton Civic Association may have approved in its annual budget request as adopted by the County Council."

It is under this language that Crofton adopted a Human Services Department with a psychological counselor whose services are free to residents of the tax district. The department has a $53,000 budget, including a $29,000 salary to counselor Linda R. Smith.

Mr. Garrett wrote that this legislative provision may be too broad and could be interpreted by the courts as a public body attempting to legislate policy through the budget process.

"While it is a very close call," the county attorney wrote, "I think that a legislative decision to authorize a special tax district to serve a particular purpose is the nature of general legislation, not budgeting.

The broad language has been dubbed the "catch-all phrase" by critics who contend it allows Crofton board members to spend money on whatever they want.

Mr. Szostek said the counseling position may not meet the standard set forth by Mr. Garrett because it was not spelled out by the council.

"We collect money and decide what to do with it," Mr. Szostek said. "Mr. Garrett is saying we must do the reverse."

He said he plans to make sure County Executive Robert R. Neall sees the opinion. "If he does find the budget to be inappropriate, he should send it back for review."

But board member Ken Folstein said the opinion should not send the budget into a quandary.

Folstein defends budgets

Mr. Folstein pointed out that budgets submitted every year to the county spell out the spending plan. "Every one of these budgets is a line-item," he said, "and the county has never had a problem."

Ms. Clagett said yesterday that the council has never rejected a budget from Crofton. She said how tax dollars are spent has been left "up to Crofton. The County Council passes it. It's sort of a pass-through."

The councilwoman said she does not believe Mr. Garrett's opinion will put Crofton's budget in jeopardy, but she added that the special tax district should ask the council to approve specific language for projects or programs it wants.

"That may be the wise way to go," she said.

That could move the debate concerning the psychological counselor to the County Council. Several Crofton board members tried to get the position eliminated from the 1995 budget, objecting to tax money being spent for private counseling.

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