Volunteers pick up slack for area governments With money scarce, residents help out

October 16, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Towson zoning lawyer Rob Hoffman makes his living around Baltimore County's government complex, but Saturday morning he'll be working there for free -- scrubbing the 19th-century marble portico of the old courthouse.

Hoffman will be among hundreds of residents from Halethorpe to Cockeysville to Dundalk spending time on such projects this weekend as part of a broad campaign by Baltimore County and other local governments to defray costs and boost long-term volunteer projects.

Like other localities short on cash but long on demands for service, Baltimore County is turning more and more to residents to help with small maintenance projects once left to government workers.

This weekend, among 260 projects, volunteers will remove graffiti from Dundalk High School, create a tutoring project at Woodlawn Middle School and clean the banks of Herbert's Run.

Similar campaigns are being mounted elsewhere in the area. Harford County will hold its ninth annual Community Service Weekend Oct. 25, when 15 cleanup, planting and painting projects are planned. Annapolis has an annual spring cleanup called Greenscape.

In Baltimore, a nonprofit group, Hands on Baltimore, staged a similar effort in May, when volunteers worked on 236 projects, said Ken Coulson, community projects coordinator.

Baltimore County's effort, the most ambitious in the area, was inspired by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell's call for voluntarism and by the county government's need to save money.

"Government can't do everything" became a common refrain in Towson under County Executive Roger B. Hayden -- and for many other area county executives -- during the recession of the early 1990s. Hayden's successor, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, has continued the theme.

"We want to go to the next level, get the people together and create a momentum, and it's a great role model for children," Ruppersberger said, not to mention a way for students to fulfill their 75-hour community-service requirement.

Unlike other suburban counties, Baltimore County is an aging, slow-growth suburb pressed for new revenue. Political pressures prevent big tax increases, and, like Baltimore, the county has numerous aging buildings.

Throughout the region, the power of volunteers is important. And many of the volunteer projects have been based at schools.

For example, Anne Arundel County parents repainted a middle school last year to welcome Broadneck High School students displaced by renovations. In Jessup several years ago, parents built partitions in an elementary school to eliminate unpopular open-space classrooms.

School officials in Howard County, by contrast, don't encourage volunteer work on their buildings because of concerns about liability.

Most of the projects of the Baltimore County Volunteer Weekend are simple ones that can be completed in a day or even a few hours.

"We asked schools to think small," said Donald I. Mohler, spokesman for the school. "Our goal is that across Baltimore County on Monday morning, people see something has happened to make them feel better about their school."

Members of Dundalk's Ateaze Senior Center volunteered to clean the front garden and do yard work, and many schools planned fall plantings.

Other projects, such as Sudbrook Magnet Middle School's visit to a nearby nursing home, Augsburg Lutheran, are part of a larger, long-term effort.

Sweetheart Cup Co. in Owings Mills is handling three projects: donating kitchen supplies for a family shelter, painting curbs in front of Owings Mills High School and painting and planting at Deer Park Elementary School.

"We've been doing this a year or more," Jim Welkos, Sweetheart's human resources manager, said of the company's emphasis on community service. "It really started from our employees, but our president is a real big believer in corporate citizenship."

That is another of Ruppersberger's goals. "We've been trying for the last two years to get community groups to meet with business groups," he said.

Only the harshest of Ruppersberger critics sees an ulterior motive in the big volunteer weekend, which comes a year before he seeks re-election.

Richard W. McQuaid, an anti-development activist who is president of the North County Coalition, said volunteering "might be a good idea if it wasn't designed with political overtures. Every move he makes is politically motivated. He's building up his image for higher office."

Prominent county Republicans don't share that view of Democrat Ruppersberger.

Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, said he sees no political motive in the weekend and added, "I think it's a great thing to do."

Hoffman, known for wearing a tuxedo on the final night of the County Council's rezoning vote, got involved in the volunteer weekend by asking what he could do near his Towson office. A county organizer assigned him the courthouse steps project.

So the Venable, Baetjer and Howard attorney will be out Saturday morning with a bucket of soapy water and a scrub brush. And without a regret.

"I think it's great. I'd be happy to participate in a longer-term project," he said.

To take part, call the Baltimore County Office of Communications at 410-887-2470.

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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