More Balto. Co. deals under fire Rules, council evaded by conservation staff in 2 additional cases

August 30, 1996|By Ronnie Greene and Larry Carson | Ronnie Greene and Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's fledgling Community Conservation Program, already under fire for cutting a $200,000 land deal behind the scenes, sidestepped county purchasing rules -- and the County Council -- in two more instances.

In the new cases, disclosed yesterday by county officials, the program handed public money to private groups that hired companies to perform work on county property. In all, nearly $400,000 in grant money was used for outdoor lights at Lansdowne Middle School's athletic field and renovation of an Essex youth center.

"We could have only hit the tip of the iceberg," Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, said. "What's going on? Is this a department that's run out of control? And if they're out of control, they're going to have to get reined in."

He noted that the grants have come under question at the same time as a $200,000 deal to buy a Lansdowne lot for a park -- a price nearly three times the lowest appraisal.

"If somebody's head rolls on it, I guess that's what should happen," he said. "I don't like to use the word cover-up, but I really feel there was information that was withheld that should have come forward."

No one objects to the projects themselves, but the process is drawing criticism.

The problem, top county officials say, was that public work, bankrolled by public dollars, was taken out of the hands of government and given to private groups that might not be bound by competitive bidding laws or other safeguards.

"It's oversight," said Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat.

"My concern is that people outside of government are making decisions without government oversight," Kamenetz said.

To Dundalk Democratic Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, the two new examples are strikingly similar to the Lansdowne parkland purchase.

"Same animal, but a different size and a different color," he said. "The root problem is very offensive."

Responding to criticisms, conservation program Director P. David Fields says he and other county officials erred in all three cases.

But he insists their motives were to help the community -- not sidestep the council. Fearing the glacial pace of government bureaucracy, Fields set out to speed things up. In the Lansdowne Middle School and Essex cases, work was done in three months that would have taken six months to a year otherwise, he said.

"We saw this as a legitimate, alternate way of meeting those communities' needs. In hindsight, maybe that wasn't as correct as it was supposed to be," Fields said.

"These are sort of gray areas in terms of where we're feeling our way, of trying to find ways to respond to the communities' needs," he said, referring to the year-old program designed to bolster aging neighborhoods.

County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart said the two new cases don't violate the county charter, as did the $200,000 purchase of 3.5 acres at Baltimore and Fifth avenues in Lansdowne.

In the land deal, the conservation program wanted to buy the property for a park. The owners wanted $200,000, but two county-commissioned appraisals put the value at less than $100,000.

When the county's Bureau of Land Acquisitions balked at the asking price, Fields came up with a solution: He routed a $200,000 federal grant to the Southwest Leadership Team, a community group that bought the property.

Southwest Leadership is tied to another grant under question.

That grant was used to pay $205,058 for outdoor lights and concrete footers for a community-donated scoreboard at Lansdowne Middle. Without seeking bids, the group contracted with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to have the lights installed.

"I didn't realize the County Council was being bypassed," said the Rev. Steven P. Girard, chairman of the Southwest Leadership Team.

The lights fulfilled a pledge that former County Executive Roger B. Hayden made to the community several years ago.

"We're a community group really trying to do what's good," Girard said.

The other grant went to the Baltimore County Police Athletic League Inc., a private, nonprofit group that helps provide for county PAL centers but does not directly operate them. This group sought bids for $172,600 in renovation work for the new Riverwood Family and Youth Center, a converted former shopping center on Back River Neck Road in Essex.

The 10,000-square-foot building opened with great fanfare April 25. It houses a PAL program, day care center, jobs program and martial arts school -- all designed to battle juvenile crime in one of the county's worst poverty pockets.

The PAL centers are run by the Police Department, which is separate from the group that received the grant money.

The problem in all three cases, all now agree, is that council members got no chance to scrutinize the contracts for work done on county-owned property.

"It's gotten out of hand," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat whose district includes the Riverwood center.

Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican, was adamant. "The safeguards of public moneys should not be sacrificed for political expediency or speed," he said.

Council members plan to introduce a bill next week imposing more restrictions on the grant process and requiring written notification to the council of all purchases.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III plans to act sooner, with an executive order to implement the procedures in the proposed council bill. They include establishing a post of grants administrator and a committee of top administration officials to review all grants.

"The fact there is one irregularity -- and perhaps a few others -- does raise concerns," said Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican. "We've got to get guidelines in place to make sure this doesn't happen again."

vTC Pub Date: 8/30/96

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