Worst laid plans Howard County: Booking center and traffic sensors show shortsightedness.

December 26, 1996

POOR PLANNING by Howard County officials could saddle taxpayers with bills for equipment and space that may never be used.

Last month, The Sun reported that a central, automated booking facility for the police department sat idle because of bureaucratic snafus. Two weeks ago came a report that most of the radio-wave devices the county bought to change traffic signals from red to green for emergency vehicles cannot be used on county roads.

Both problems could have been avoided with better communication among government officials and greater consideration of potential pitfalls.

In the first case, the county spent tens of thousands of dollars to build office space for the booking center and nearly $100,000 on high-tech equipment to be used there, including video gear, fingerprinting machines and computer systems. In addition, the police department has $275,000 in its budget for the salaries of new staff at the center.

It was supposed to be a place where police officers could fingerprint prisoners, complete other processing and bring them to the six court commissioners, hastening the process to get them to the detention center. But someone forgot to straighten this out beforehand with the commissioners, who said they wanted to stay in the District Court building to be closer to the district judges, lawyers and court records and farther from police officers to maintain impartiality.

In the second case, the county's Traffic Engineering Division ordered $69,000 worth of sensors to trip traffic signals for emergency vehicles, but decided to buy equipment different from that used elsewhere in Maryland. County officials insist that the radio wave transmitters they bought are more effective for Howard's winding, hilly roads than the Opticom system used by the state and other jurisdictions, including those with similar landscapes. However, Opticom is the only system approved by the state for its roads -- and the only one it will help finance.

Mistakes like these may be the exception rather than the rule, but county government must avoid them by getting all parties on board before sailing ahead with plans.

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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