Balto. Co. authority expands its role After golf takeover, revenue agency may build new facilities

October 25, 1995|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN STAFF

Taking over Baltimore County's public golf courses could be just the start of a bold new role for a little-noticed, independent county agency.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III wants to use the county Revenue Authority's borrowing power to build new neighborhood recreational facilities such as ice rinks and a tournament-quality softball complex.

"We're moving into a new era," he said. And if he gets his way, the staid, 39-year-old authority will move far beyond its traditional role of building parking garages and installing parking meters.

Still, some County Council members worry that the authority's expanded role could make it a sort of "shadow government" -- and have vowed to prevent that.

"We don't want to have a situation like Baltimore City's -- a shadow government," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a conservative Republican, referring to high-level officials who worked behind closed doors on major projects when William Donald Schaefer was mayor. "We're going to watch it very carefully."

The authority more than doubled its size in August, with the golf takeover. Now, in addition to four Towson garages and 1,900 parking meters in town centers around the Beltway, the authority is operating three public golf courses, adding 18 holes at Woodlawn and buying and completing a fifth in White Hall.

A key player will be Robert R. Staab, a top Ruppersberger aide hired this week to run the authority's new golf empire. Mr. Staab, a former state legislator and county recreation and parks director, got the $85,000-a-year job with a unanimous vote of the authority's five-member board.

Authority officials also have hired a $21,000-a-month consultant to study the county's golf operations, suggest improvements and oversee construction at two courses costing $13.6 million.

Mr. Staab's hiring was criticized, however, by William L. Cook, director of Baltimore's Municipal Golf Corp. He said he was promised the job, but lost out to Mr. Staab's political influence despite what he called his better qualifications -- charges that led Mr. Ruppersberger yesterday to call Mr. Cook "disgruntled."

The authority's attraction is its power to raise money without affecting the county's ability to issue bonds for schools and other projects. The self-supporting, legally independent authority can sell bonds and borrow money, using revenues from its projects to pay off debts.

The authority has the legal power to build anything from a new football stadium to an airport. It has financed projects as diverse as a Catonsville Community College building, the new Towson District Court and the purchase of a floating dry dock for Bethlehem Steel.

Montgomery County is the only other local jurisdiction in Maryland with a revenue authority, although Annapolis authorities are considering creating one. Montgomery County's authority runs a general aviation airport in Gaithersburg, four public golf courses and has built other projects, including a 186-unit housing development for the elderly and a central kitchen facility for schools.

Starting Aug. 1, the Baltimore County authority took control of county courses at Longview in Cockeysville, Diamond Ridge in Woodlawn and Rocky Point on the Back River peninsula. The $1.1 million annual profits from those courses will help pay for the new Greystone course at White Hall and for the $6 million, 18-hole expansion at Diamond Ridge at Woodlawn.

Taking over golf operations doubled the authority's gross income from $4 million to $8 million a year, Executive Director George E. Hale said. And the number of employees jumped from 37 to 180, although some golf maintenance workers are seasonal employees.

Projects "must make fiscal sense, said authority board Chairman Robert W. Cannon, a partner in the Weinberg and Green law firm.

But that doesn't mean every project is a winner.

The authority had an operating loss of $100,000 in fiscal 1993, and two of its garages are still losing money.

The newest one, built in 1991 next to the Towson library, is nearing the break-even point, Mr. Hale said, while the Tolbert garage near York Road and Washington Avenue is only about half-full on most days.

Democrat Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, like Mr. McIntire, does not criticize the authority for past projects. But he calls the authority "one of those old double-edged swords," with the good works its fund-raising power can accomplish balanced against the worry that political influence could divert money to misguided deals. To ease such worries, Mr. Ruppersberger has agreed to ask for state legislation giving the County Council power to review his appointments to the authority's board. Also, he agreed to give the council two of the seven seats on a new golf advisory council.

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