New funding surprises officials

Money comes from state account, slated for use in parks, trails

June 04, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

While Anne Arundel County Council members have delighted in the completion of the fiscal 2000 budget, several spent this week trying to decipher how budget officers found $1.6 million in new money during the last gasps of their negotiations.

County Executive Janet S. Owens' maneuver preserved full funding for schools -- and squeezed in some coveted local projects that before that day, just didn't seem to fit. But Council members said such moves could complicate her relationship with them.

"Full disclosure is going to need to be there if we're going to develop trust," said Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., council chairman. "I wish we had known that money was sitting in the kitty."

Normally, as the deadline approaches, county officials are scouring for budget lines to cut. But in the search to fund two major park projects, Owens' staff took a different approach: increase revenue projections.

After hours of fiscal refiguration last Thursday night, Owens was able to add the expansion of a Severn park and a trail on the Broadneck Peninsula to the jam-packed $730 million budget plan.

"When they came downstairs and announced they had found this money, none of us could figure out how they did it," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk. "The fact that we weren't told of this money until the final hour makes you question the whole process."

Only in the county's budget process can stumbling into $1.6 million sting as much as it soothes. And as council members recover from weeks of trying to juggle budget figures, several are questioning whether Owens held back her revenue figures to give her an upper hand in negotiations.

It is a charge that Owens once leveled against her predecessor, John G. Gary, when he kept finding "new" money for school projects as the election drew near.

But Marvin Bond, Owens' chief of staff, said there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the sudden appearance of new funds in the budget, which administration officials have just learned themselves.

"What may have appeared to be sleight of hand was really just an issue of timing," Bond said.

The additional funds came from Program Open Space, a state account that channels money from a property transfer tax to land preservation projects.

Bond said that during the week before the budget was to be completed, county officials learned they would be receiving more than $4 million from the account, not the $2.8 million that they originally projected. They also received an additional $600,000 for the 1999 fiscal year.

The funds, which must be spent on state-approved open-space projects, enabled Owens to add last-minute support to the $1.4 million expansion of Severn-Danza Park on Donaldson Road, a project sought by several council members. She also added $200,000 for a hiking trail at Broadneck Peninsula.

Grant Dehart, Program Open Space director, confirmed that letters detailing new funding amounts weren't mailed until late last week, but he said he handed "preliminary lists of increases" to Arundel parks officials in April.

Bond said budget officials did not hear from parks officials about the increases until "the last week or so of the budget negotiations."

Councilman Cliff R. Roop, a Severna Park Republican, said he and the other council members were "totally surprised" by the additional money, but he still has not decided how to react to the way Owens handled that element of the budget process.

"You have to believe they are dealing with you in good faith," Roop said. "What else can you do?"

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