End of the 99-year sweetheart lease Non-profits offended by Ruppersberger's change have nothing to lose.

March 04, 1997

A FEW YEARS AGO, then-Baltimore County executive Roger B. Hayden decided to lease surplus county buildings to non-profit groups for $1 a year for 99 years. The policy looked like a fitting gesture at the time. After all, cash-strapped governments were increasingly leaving community outreach and social programs to private groups. A sweetheart deal on buildings seemed the least the county could do.

His successor, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, made waves recently when he moved to cancel those leases. But even groups upset with his administration over the way the change was made concede that the cancellation itself makes sense. From the county's standpoint, the deal was terrible. It relinquished control over its facilities while in most cases continuing to pay maintenance and utility costs. The arrangement wasn't that sweet for the leasees, either. They had to find tenants, collect rent and operate expensive buildings.

Now the county will locate tenants and lease buildings for shorter periods. It will manage and pay for day-to-day operations. As for the non-profits, they can focus on running neighborhood programs instead of buildings.

Despite all this, changing the policy upset some groups that serve neglected neighborhoods. To them, this looked like a case of the county taking away one of the few things it has given. They might have seen it differently had Mr. Ruppersberger explained the benefits to them before he ended their leases.

In Lansdowne, where the changes caused the most hurt feelings, the former public library -- recently renovated with $250,000 in community block grants -- has been sitting half-empty under management by the Southwest Leadership Team. Now part of it will be retrofitted for a day-care center that must be moved from a nearby church. The county expects that to cost $210,000 less than renovating a convent for the day care, a solution some community members still want from the county government.

Mr. Ruppersberger promises to invest the difference in the Lansdowne community. The Southwest Leadership Team will still have access to the building. The two tenants it had recruited can stay.

In short, there are benefits to ending 99-year leases, and no losers.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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