Executive orders changes in grants 3 Balto. Co. projects in community program have been questioned

September 04, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

Aiming to rein in the county's upstart Community Conservation Program, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III ordered yesterday new safeguards in how the county doles out public grant money.

His executive order comes after three grants awarded by the program -- which was created to jump-start ailing neighborhoods -- have come under question.

Ruppersberger, just back from the Democratic National Convention, met with the two county officials at the center of the problem grants: Community Conservation Director P. David Fields and Chief Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly.

"I let it be known: I'm in charge," the county executive said. "This will not be tolerated. Responsibility has to be accepted. And we move on from here, and use this negative and turn it into a positive."

No one questions the ultimate goals of the grants -- used to buy land for a park in Lansdowne, install lighting at Lansdowne Middle School's athletic fields and renovate an Essex youth center.

It's the way the money was handled that is drawing criticism.

In one case, the Community Conservation Program routed $200,000 to a private, nonprofit group to buy land for a park -- even though two appraisals put the property's value at less than $100,000. The purchase violated the County Charter, which requires County Council approval of such deals.

In the other two cases, the program routed grants totaling nearly $400,000 to private nonprofits, which then hired contractors to perform work.

These grants didn't violate the charter, but officials said the county should contract for the work, not leave it in the hands of private nonprofits.

In each case, Fields and Kelly said they simply were trying to move along much-needed community projects. Still, they acknowledged that they went about it the wrong way.

"I told them I understand their desire to expedite these processes through the system," Ruppersberger said. "But I also advised them in no way will we ever violate any procedures or rules that are in effect."

Last night, the County Council began consideration of its set of safeguards, which would be enacted into law.

Among other provisions, the executive order signed yesterday: Creates the job of grant administration coordinator, to be appointed from Ruppersberger's staff.

Establishes a grant review committee, made up of the county administrative officer, county attorney, director of budget or their designees, plus the grant administration coordinator and two members of the executive's staff.

Requires that these grants be subject to committee approval: grants or loans in excess of $10,000; grants to for-profit recipients; grants intended to support an improvement on county land; grants funded in whole or part by county bonds.

Orders that a summary of recommended grants be forwarded to County Council members.

Requires all grants in excess of $50,000 -- or those that require approval under the County Charter -- be presented to the council for approval.

"My actions are clear: full disclosure," Ruppersberger said. "All taxpayer money has to be held accountable."

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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