Early payment made to program $300,000 check called error in accounting

October 28, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County officials are proposing an innovative job-training program for high school dropouts. And they are planning to pay for it in an innovative way:

By avoiding some of the approvals required by the County Council in the county's charter.

When council members vote Monday on whether to fund the Gateway program, they'll find themselves in an odd position because the county already sent a check for $300,000 to the company that hopes to start the job-training sessions in January.

Supporters of the program argue that the premature mailing of the check was a minor accounting error that should not hurt an otherwise praiseworthy program designed to help 40 troubled teens.

But County Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans said she's worried the administration of County Executive John G. Gary may be trying to circumvent the council to boost the chances of a program that Gary has been trying to get off the ground.

"I don't think it was an accounting error," said Evans. "The way the administration has handled this, I think it's a way to jump-start a project prior to the council's deliberations and vote. This is not the way the procedure is supposed to work."

Although the Gateway program does not exist and the council has not decided if it wants to pay for it, the county finance office mailed the $300,000 check Sept. 2 to the Business and Workforce Development Center of Anne Arundel County Inc., a Severna Park nonprofit company with a contract to run county job training programs, according to county records.

County budget analyst Jeffrey Balentine said the administration made a mistake by sending the check too early and had no intention of sneaking around the council.

"The funds shouldn't have been released before the grant was approved by the County Council," Balentine said. "It was simple human error. There was no malicious intent."

If the council chooses not to fund the program, the company will return the money, Balentine said. The money has been sitting in a company bank account earning interest.

The county has a pressing need for the Gateway program because many students ages 16 through 21 drop out of school and drift toward destructive lives, said Dorothy McGuinness, president of the company.

The voluntary program, which may start as early as January, would take youths not likely to return to school and teach them the basics of working-class trades such as carpentry and perhaps fiber-optic line installation.

The initiative would fill an important niche in the county, McGuinness said. It would help young people not struggling so badly that they qualify for juvenile court programs and not as academically focused as those attending the county's alternative high school in Crownsville.

The total cost of the program's first year would be $558,310, according to a county report. It would have seven employees, including a director and two counselors; an office rented in a location not yet determined; two rented vans; 14 computers; three printers and eight telephones.

In addition to the county money, $232,080 for the program would come from U.S. Department of Justice grants and the remainder from other federal grants, according to the report.

Because the county has already given its $300,000 for the program, the County Council's vote Monday will just be on whether to approve the expenditure of the federal grants (which also are administered by the county).

County Auditor Teresa Sutherland submitted a report to the council Oct. 22 saying that sending the $300,000 check without approval by the council was "improper" and "inappropriate."

The county's human services officer, Ardath Cade, said the county had the money left over from last fiscal year because the Department of Social Services received more state and federal grants than expected.

The council's vice chairman, Bert Rice, said he is concerned about the error. But he added that the program has enough merit to deserve support by the council.

"We should slap them on the hand and say, 'Don't do this again,' rather than belabor the issue," said Rice. "There is a whole lot of need for this kind of program, and I really hope that we can put it all together."

Pub Date: 10/28/97

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