'Slush fund' in Towson? Baltimore County: Checks and balances make abuse of discretionary account unlikely.

August 20, 1996

LACKING SAFEGUARDS, discretionary funds similar to the one set up last year for use by Baltimore County council members lend themselves to abuse. A year ago in Accomack County, Va., all nine county supervisors were indicted on charges that they used $250,000 from a discretionary account to curry favor with influential community groups. The money went to churches (a violation of church-state separation laws) and frivolities such as an after-school prom party, band boosters and Little League baseball teams.

In Baltimore County, no such abuse has occurred since the fund was established with money trimmed from the county executive's budget. The money ($2.1 million last year and another $700,000 set aside from this year's $1.36 billion budget) has been used for important nuts-and-bolts projects: the rebuilding of Roberts Avenue in Catonsville, alley reconstruction, the burial of water tanks to provide an adequate water source near schools.

More important, there seems little potential for the kind of abuse that occurred in Virginia due to checks on the council that the Accomack supervisors lacked. The executive branch is the biggest constraint. Ultimately, the executive is responsible for this money. The discretionary account is part of his budget, and disbursement of all funds must go through his administration. This makes it difficult for the council to use public money for patronage purposes; no executive wants to suffer the repercussions of a council member's indiscretion.

The council's ability to subtract from but not add to the budget is another check; it cannot create a fat pot of money at taxpayer expense. So are annual budget hearings. True, each discretionary item doesn't receive a public airing. But hearings have never been held on every expenditure. Last winter, the county spent extra to cover snow removal costs without seeking public input. Some decisions we entrust to those we elect.

This fund appears to offer county taxpayers more advantages than risks. As long as checks stay in place and the scope of the fund is limited, it can help tailor the budget to each district and allow the council to meet needs important to their districts, but which rank low on the list of countywide priorities.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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