The Baltimore County Council has crafted a creative way to spread public money around, with vast political discretion and a blessing from the county executive.
It's called the "discretionary fund," and is precisely what the title suggests: a pool of money to be spent in large measure at the discretion of individual council members.
It's not small change, either -- with $2.1 million set aside in the last budget year and another $700,000 this year. The money is divided evenly among the seven council districts, meaning each councilman got $300,000 last fiscal year and another $100,000 this year.
The money has begun to flow -- to patch alleys, smooth rocky roads, help renovate a high school and build a fire station. Smaller amounts have landed at the door of local recreation centers or PTAs.
It comes from cuts the council made to the budget of Democratic County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III -- money that could have been used to trim the property-tax rate. Instead, with Ruppersberger's approval last year, the council set up the pool of money.
"We could have done a tax cut. It probably would have allowed each taxpayer to buy a Big Mac," said Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat. "The benefit to the taxpayer would not have been obvious or lasting."
And now, to a man, council members laud their decision, saying they're funding projects that otherwise might languish.
"Some people get their nose disjointed, like we're playing games or something," said Democratic Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, who earmarked $300,000 for alleys, curbs and gutters in his Dundalk district. "But this went for meat and potatoes. I'd like to have $20 million."
But questions persist about the fund and the power it gives individual politicians.
"One does not want public money spent solely at the discretion of an elected official," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a public-interest watchdog group. "It sounds like it's done with no public input and no oversight.
"It helps ensure their re-election when they treat certain neighborhoods in a favorable manner," she said. "The public needs to be assured that public funds are not used for patronage projects."
A Sun review of the discretionary fund found a system in which public dollars are doled out with little formal guidance and no public input. When the council created the fund, it put no written guidelines in place spelling out how the initial $2.1 million would be spent.
"I never thought of that," said Perry Hall's councilman, Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat who was chairman when he introduced the idea. "But the money has all the necessary checks and balances. The money was not inappropriately designated for anything."
Last budget year, the councilmen's favored projects were as diverse as their districts.
Republican Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, who represents the north county and Owings Mills, sliced his $300,000 into several pieces, with half going to install underground water tanks in a project with neighboring Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder of Fullerton, a Democrat who also put in $150,000 for the work in their adjoining and largely rural districts. Bartenfelder's remaining funds are earmarked for road, alley and parking lot work.
McIntire also picked three $10,000 projects to help two recreation centers and a local PTA build a concession stand, pavilion and playground.
"I really can't say enough about the councilman," said Kevin Bye, former president of the 5th District Recreation Council, recipient of $10,000 from McIntire for a concession and storage building. "I thought it was great. We would not be able to get the building done without that money."
This year, for the first time, written procedures were put into place as the councilmen divided another $700,000.
In a one-page memo, Kamenetz said appropriations should be used for community conservation or other nonschool capital projects and made in consultation with the executive. He also decreed that the money be spent in amounts of $25,000 or more -- ruling out $10,000 projects.
Asked about the memo, Kamenetz said: "I want to make sure we have safeguards for the future. I don't think we have any abuses going on. I just want to ensure there aren't any abuses in the future."
Even with those safeguards, no public hearing is required to determine how the discretionary money is spent. And no formal process is in place for community groups to apply for a share.
Records show several hundred thousand dollars remain unspent from the $2.1 million allocated for the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Gardina earmarked a third of his initial $300,000 for alley work, and $200,000 remains. He said he plans to use $120,000 for a homeownership incentive program for three communities in the Essex-Middle River area.
"The main reason it's been delayed is I've tried to find projects that I thought were worthy of using it," Gardina said.