28 years to build a park? Baltimore County: Glacial bureaucratic process makes it too hard to get anything done.

September 18, 1996

IN 1968, Baltimore County bought land for the Southwest Area Park in Lansdowne. It took 17 years to get the first phase of the project built -- three tennis courts and a picnic area. Today, 28 years later, it still isn't finished.

In the summer of 1995, the county began planning a restroom comfort station at a ballfield in the same neighborhood. It isn't scheduled for completion until early 1997.

Nearly two years to build a 20-by-12 comfort station? Nearly three decades to build a park? These are the kinds of delays that recently drove P. David Fields, director of a program to revive neglected neighborhoods, to look for ways to circumvent the bureaucratic process.

Mr. Fields awarded grants for a land purchase and recreation projects to private groups because they can avoid hoops through which the county takes eons to jump. He landed in hot water when the county attorney said he violated a charter provision regarding land purchases, and it became clear that elected leaders needed more authority over grant allocations.

That controversy, which appears to have been resolved, overshadowed the larger question of why the county takes so infernally long to accomplish community projects, especially in older, poorer neighborhoods that lack political clout. The answer is partly that until recently the county channelled its resources into new growth areas, not older neighborhoods. That philosophy has started to change, but land purchase, bidding and planning procedures still result in interminable delays.

It does not have to be this way. Not long ago, the county reviewed its alley repair process, which used to take up to eight years. It now takes only months because officials eliminated the source of the delays. Last week, another community conservation project, a Police Athletic League facility for youths, opened in Cockeysville after only five weeks' worth of renovations. The Ruppersberger administration saw that its own workers could do the job, eliminating the need for time-consuming bidding.

The county serves citizens faster and better when it sets priorities, pinpoints the cause of delays, improves communication between elected officials and bureaucrats, privatizes when appropriate and works creatively within the rules. It should do these things more often.

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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