Gary funds not given to groups

Firefighters, others say former executive broke his promises

`Double-spent the money'

Supporters say he would have honored obligations if re-elected

April 25, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

During the final, bruising months of his failed bid for re-election, then-County Executive John G. Gary doled out more than $750,000 in taxpayer funds -- money that was committed elsewhere, or that didn't exist, his opponents say -- for popular projects in key swing districts.

Announcements that he had approved the purchase of new firetrucks, construction of a modern police substation and a long-sought community center were trumpeted during ceremonies that included a ribbon-cutting and the presentation of giant checks.

It was the kind of campaign-trail generosity not unusual in the political world, where incumbents can brandish the public checkbook to win the hearts of voters. What was unusual was that this time, the checks bounced.

"He double-spent the money," said county Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, who said she got a frantic call in January from volunteer firefighters who found no record of funding for their newly ordered pumper-ladder truck.

"He made promises that he couldn't keep -- that we couldn't keep -- because the funds weren't there," said Murphy, a District 3 Democrat.

Gary was out of town and could not be reached to comment, but his supporters say he did nothing out of the ordinary and would have found money for the proposals had he been elected.

Although the handouts failed as a strategy to win the Republican Gary votes, they have succeeded in frustrating his successor, Janet S. Owens. In recent weeks, several groups have come to her administrators to say they were counting on money Gary granted them last fall.

Marvin Bond, Owens' chief of staff, said Gary committed money he had used elsewhere.

"There were three or four commitments that he appears to have made," Bond said. "In each instance, it appears that the money he intended to use already had obligations out there for it."

Gary's supporters said there is nothing untoward about this. During a four-year term, some money is bound to be spent in the final few months, they said.

As to assertions from Gary's opponents that the funding was politically motivated, "That's been part of politics for 200 years," said Michael Owen, a former Gary campaign insider. "Are they suggesting there's something unusual in an incumbent using the power of his office to further his political goals?"

`Last-minute things'

Thomas Redmond, a Democratic councilman unseated in last year's primary, also defended the former executive. He said the previous administration would have covered the obligations.

"I know there are some last-minute things that were promised, and if Mr. Gary or myself were in office now, I'm sure these things would have been delivered," Redmond said. "But when the officeholders change, priorities change."

In August, Gary showed up at a ribbon-cutting to announce a new community center and office for the Pasadena Business Association, committing the $150,000 needed to bring the project to life, according to Redmond.

Redmond said Gary had planned to allocate surplus money from the general fund to pay for the new center early this year. But he never placed the project in the capital budget, and with the change in administration, that money is now in flux.

The business association's president, Michael Thompson, is realistic about what has happened. "Once Gary lost, we knew it became a whole new ballgame," he said. "But we still need that money if this is going to get off the ground."

Bond said the prospects for funding the community center remain uncertain.

`We were thrilled'

In September, Gary appeared at the annual banquet for volunteer firefighters toting several blown-up checks he used as props to announce funding for at least three new trucks. He told a cheering audience of firefighters that a $604,000 state grant would be used to buy equipment in Earleigh Heights, Orchard Beach and Riviera Beach.

"We were thrilled," said Kenneth Hyde, the Riviera Beach fire chief, who said Gary gave the department $212,097. "We sold our ladder truck to Baltimore and went out and ordered a new one."

But in late January, after the county administration changed, firefighters learned that the state funding had been used for the purchase of other county fire equipment. At the urging of several area politicians, county officials took the funds from the already-strapped county fire budget. The other two departments are not getting the promised funding, Bond said.

"The critical one was Riviera Beach, because they had already spent the money," he said. "Hopefully, those other issues will resolve themselves."

In October, Gary went to fast-growing Maryland City to announce the purchase of 7 acres for what he said would be a new police substation and much-needed soccer and baseball fields.

But money was never budgeted to build the station, and police officials have since told Owens they never asked for it.

State Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, one of several Anne Arundel politicians who intervened when firefighters learned they were not getting their equipment, said the volunteers and other communities were casualties of some tough political realities.

"I'm afraid what happened is part of the process," Jimeno said. "It was an election year."

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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