Council will vote on creating a recreation authority Body would take control of facilities that support themselves

April 15, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

An article in Tuesday's edition of The Sun in Anne Arundel gave an incorrect date for a vote on the possible creation of a county recreation authority. The vote is to be held April 22.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The trend toward the privatization of government services has swept through the region's airports, parking garages and golf courses. Now it may redefine public recreation centers in Anne Arundel County.

The County Council is to vote today on whether to set up a recreation authority that would have the power to build new golf courses, swimming pools and ice rinks. The authority could also turn over the management of the county's recreation centers to private companies.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Council Chairwoman Diane Evans and some private golf course owners are crying foul, arguing that the proposed Anne Arundel County Recreational Facilities Revenue Authority would not be accountable to the public and would compete unfairly against private businesses.

"My concern is the erosion of the tax base," Evans told a committee debating the bill to create the authority yesterday.

"Aren't we undercutting the private sector, which could develop these types of recreational facilities in a way that the county could tax?" she asked.

County officials, pinched for tax dollars since the creation of a tax cap in 1992, have made several moves to remove traditional government services from the county budget.

Anne Arundel would be one of a growing number of local governments creating authorities to borrow money for large projects without straining their own financial resources.

Baltimore, Montgomery and Howard counties use authorities to fund a variety of public services such as golf courses and parking lots.

Since voters imposed the limit on new taxes in Anne Arundel County (taxes can grow no faster than the rate of inflation), the county has worked to get around the cap by farming out to private agencies its offices of community development, economic development and job training.

The change for the county's recreation and parks operation would be slightly different.

The move would not eliminate the Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks Department with its $8.7 million annual budget, 74 full-time employees and 130 parks spread over almost 6,000 acres, county officials said. These would stay part of the county government.

But the authority would have the power to take control of recreational facilities that could support themselves through fees, said county spokeswoman Lisa Ritter.

These could include the county-managed Eisenhower Golf Course on Route 178 in Annapolis and the Arundel Olympic Swim Center on Riva Road next to Annapolis High School, Ritter said.

In addition, the authority could respond to public demand for cheaper golfing by building as many as two more public courses, Ritter said. One would likely be in Pasadena on Fort Smallwood Road.

The authority could also borrow money by issuing bonds to build indoor swimming pools, soccer arenas and ice rinks. One rink might be at the Glen Burnie Town Center, Ritter said.

This would resolve the problem of young hockey players having to commute to rinks in Baltimore County.

Technically, the recreation authority would be a government body and not a private business -- but it would still achieve the goal of privatization, county officials said.

The law that allows creation of the authority was passed by the state legislature.

The authority would be run by a nine-member board appointed by the county executive. It would probably have two employees, executive director and an assistant. Its money would come not from county taxes but from fees charged at recreation facilities. And it would hire private companies to run its golf courses and other recreation centers, said Sam Minnitte, the county executive's chief of staff.

One proposal this winter to create the authority stalled because of disputes over how much oversight the County Council should have over the authority's budget. The new proposal discussed yesterday would let the council veto spending, but it not have confirmation power over appointments to the authority by the county executive.

"It's clearly a form of privatization," said Minnitte. "It is a financial tool that would allow for the building of more public recreation facilities without using more tax dollars. But all of its operations will be run by the private sector."

Golf course owners have another term for it: unfair competition.

"I've been very vocal in my opposition," said Charlie Birney, an owner of South River Golf Links south of Annapolis. "I do not see how you can say it's fair for the government to get into direct competition with taxpaying businesses."

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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