Cost Overruns and Political End-Runs

April 14, 1994

If we needed a sign to prove that an election year is upon us, Howard County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray has provided it, hoping to seize the mantle of fiscal conservative from incumbent County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Mr. Gray is proposing a bill that would put the brakes on what he calls out-of-control cost overruns on county projects. The aim, according to the long-time Democratic council member, is to stop a pattern of "low-ball" bidding by those who win contracts for providing construction, supplies and services to the county, then return to the county later, seeking "contract modifications" and more money.

County officials have encouraged the practice through acquiescence, Mr. Gray contends. The exact extent of the problem is unknown, but no one is denying its existence.

Mr. Gray's move is more than a strike against wasteful spending. It's a jab at the Republican Mr. Ecker, who is seeking re-election, and his party's political foundation. Mr. Gray has expressed an interest in the county executive job but has not announced that he will run. He would be considered a long-shot against the popular Mr. Ecker, but only the foolhardy would call the race so early.

"Fiscal watchdog" isn't the description that leaps to mind about Mr. Gray, a traditional Democratic more associated with social causes. Still, he has on his side the results of a review by the accounting firm of KPMG Peat Marwick. It found that county officials "routinely process a substantial number of contract change orders." County officials concede spending $8.3 million on 490 contract modifications last year.

Mr. Ecker, for his part, appears like a pol outmaneuvered. The county executive agrees a problem with contracts exists, but says his administration has taken steps to correct the situation. Still, Mr. Ecker says he may endorse Mr. Gray's bill, which would subject requests for contract modifications to a panel composed of the county's auditor, attorney and administrator.

Mr. Ecker's tentativeness regarding this problem is not reassuring. Mr. Gray, meanwhile, has been quietly expressing his concern about the contract issue for months and has now taken the step of demanding that the county better police itself. Score this one for Mr. Gray.

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