Official will defend lease of water tower

Agreement allowed 2 businessmen to pay less than competitors

February 16, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Jerry Klasmeier, the county's chief administrative officer, will appear before the County Council today to defend a lucrative lease arrangement the county made three years ago with two politically connected businessmen.

Klasmeier said he plans to tell the council that the 1996 agreement, which granted the businessmen a 20-year lease far different than the county's standard lease, was totally appropriate and should not be compared with leases the county signed with other customers.

A recent article in The Sun called that lease into question. The county rents space on top of 15 water tanks to communications companies.

Businessmen Jay Winer and Charles F. Delavan, through their company, West Shore Communications, got a lease requiring that they pay the county $4,000 a year plus 25 percent of revenues they make by subletting tower space.

Fourteen other leases require payments of $22,000 to $38,000 a year, and they forbid the subletting of space.

Winer and Delavan are campaign contributors to County Councilman John J. Klocko III and former County Executive John G. Gary, both Republicans, who appointed them to the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. and signed the lease. Klocko was sponsor of a bill that allowed county employees to arrange for leases without County Council overview.

In an interview last week, Klasmeier said the lease did seem too low, but that comparing Winer and Delavan's lease with the others was like "comparing apples and oranges."

"Theirs was a totally different situation," he said. "It wasn't like Cellular One coming to us with seven or eight users ready to go. They [Winer and Delavan] were trying to recruit people to rent space on the elevated water storage tank, acting like a third party."

Klasmeier said anybody could have approached the county then -- or now -- with a similar offer and gotten a deal. He said Winer and Delavan's lease arrangement was the result of a long process of negotiation with the county, not some special arrangement.

He said bureaucrats were not aware of the campaign contributions by Winer and Delavan. They did know that the two had been in negotiations with the county from 1992 through 1996, at first trying to build a tower on county property in Pasadena, then agreeing to use the county's water tower.

Klasmeier also said nothing in county policy prevents other tower users from subletting space.

Spurgeon Eismeier, head of the county's real estate division that handles tank leases, told The Sun in December that part of the reason the county standardized the leases so that they all brought in at least $22,000 a year was to prevent subletting without explicit county approval. The boilerplate lease does not allowing subletting.

"Standardizing the leases was one of my first goals when I took this job," Eismeier said at the time. "[Winer and Delavan's] lease is one of the ones that made them realize this is not an easy thing to do. I think the other companies were relieved that it wasn't up to how somebody woke up in the morning to decide how much they had to pay or whether they could rent there or not."

At least two county employees wrote in interoffice memos, one just before the lease was signed, that the price Winer and Delavan had negotiated seemed too low. Delavan and Winer signed their lease three months after Eismeier standardized county leases. On the day Gary signed Winer and Delavan's lease, he signed another with AT&T Wireless Services for $22,000 a year for a tank in Glen Burnie.

Klasmeier denied any wrongdoing in the signing of the Winer-Delavan lease. "There was no pressure brought to bear on anybody except pressure I put on myself because I thought it was a good deal for the county ," he said. "If we had a sweetheart deal going on, do you think it would take four years to get something done?"

Winer and Delavan sold their shares of West Shore to partner Mark Sapperstein in 1997. Sapperstein sold the company to Pinnacle Towers Inc., a Florida-based communications company, last May.

In its first two years of business, the company paid $10,000 and $14,000 in rent to the county and netted more than $42,000. Since then, Pinnacle has brought in more than $65,000 in rent.

Critics say that number shows that even the county's standard lease agreement may be too low.

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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