'Shadow government' of bingo and putt-putt golf?


February 09, 1997|By Brian Sullam LTC

IF OPPONENTS of Anne Arundel County's proposed revenue authority are to be believed, this quasi-public body could become a secretive organization that will severely damage the quality of life in the county.

Even though a technicality has killed the bill that had been before the council, County Executive John Gary will reintroduce the measure, which means we will hear all the same arguments opponents offered the first time around.

Run as a "shadow government," this authority would supposedly build casinos, bingo halls, bowling alleys, fitness centers, putt-putt golf courses, maybe even a strip joint or two in the name of recreation. Not only will it destroy public morals, it will run Anne Arundel's private enterprise into the ground, opponents say.

Why the creation of a Recreational Facilities Revenue Authority is generating such alarm is hard to understand.

Local governments have created revenue authorities for years to build public amenities -- parking decks, tunnels, bridges, solid waste recovery plants, airports. In this era of tax caps and pressure to keep tax rates stable, such devices have popular vehicles for financing projects.

That is why Mr. Gary wants this legislation. The county cannot afford to maintain, let alone build, recreational facilities such as golf courses, swimming pools, ice rinks and indoor soccer arenas.

Not one taxpayer cent

Instead of denying the tens of thousands of golfers, skaters, swimmers and soccer players the opportunity to enjoy their sports, a revenue authority would create a public-private partnership that could build these facilities without using one cent of taxpayer money.

This is accomplished by creating an agency that issues bonds. Money raised through the sale of bonds is used to build revenue-generating amenities. Money earned through admissions and fees -- not taxes -- is used to pay off the bonds. Moreover, the bonds do not increase the county's indebtedness.

Free from trying to build these expensive golf courses and rinks, the county can use its scarce recreation money to build more baseball, soccer and football fields, playgrounds and hiking trails.

But instead of characterizing it as a win-win for all county residents, opponents have misconstrued the nature and structure of the proposed authority.

We have heard a lot of hysterical bleating that a recreation authority will compete unfairly with private enterprise.

This is politically correct claptrap. Private and public golf courses have existed side by side for years. Each serves a different niche and will continue to do so.

Want to play a round of golf on the weekend at the privately owned South River Golf Links? The green fee for Anne Arundel residents is $60 (cart included). At the county-owned Eisenhower Course, charge for a round of golf any day of the week is $18 for residents ($22 additional for a cart).

South River's owner, Charles S. Birney, would have one believe that another public course in the county might put him out of business. Aside from the fact that playing his well-manicured links is a totally different experience from playing at well-worn Eisenhower, many weekend duffers will never play his course regardless of how many public courses are built. With its high prices, South River may attract public course golfers once in a while, but few will be regulars at his place.

If the council heeds the likes of Mr. Birney, thousands of county residents of modest means will be denied the opportunity to play their sport.

Other objections have bordered on the ludicrous.

Some say the legislation must contain language preventing the authority from building and operating bowling alleys, bingo halls and casinos. No sane, sober, prudent investor would consider purchasing bonds to finance any of these facilities.

Because a revenue authority must go to market to sell its bonds, scrutiny is intense. Before they risk their money, investors and credit analysts want to account for every dollar spent in construction and operation as well as every dollar of revenue.

Suggestions that this authority might operate in secret is nonsense. Under state law, an authority would have to conduct public meetings and disclose all of its finances. Institutional investors, the mutual funds, banks and insurance companies that purchase revenue bonds would never tolerate an authority that operated behind closed doors.

Comparing a revenue authority to the "shadow government" that William Donald Schaefer created while mayor of Baltimore is a red herring. Mr. Schaefer's scheme was not a government, but a series of deal-oriented financial arrangements that allowed the city to leverage federal dollars. As soon as he left office, the "shadow government" closed. A revenue authority has a life that will extend beyond the county executive's term.

If County Council members give credence to these ill-founded arguments and reject a revenue authority, they will have needlessly undercut the interests of their constituents.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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