Workers are paid to live in parks

Callahan looking into rent-free agreements with 4 employees

June 17, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County leaders are trying to figure out how a handful of employees landed such sweet digs.

Four parks workers, holding the title "caretaker," have for years been paid part-time salaries to live rent-free in county-owned houses.

One of them, Fred Kramer, has lived for 22 years with his family at Mayo Park, 90 acres of grassy property with sweeping views of the Chesapeake and a tranquil pond brimming with carp.

In exchange for maintaining the property and organizing weekend events there, he is paid $19,000 a year. He makes $58,000 working full-time for Annapolis, a job he is leaving this summer.

"I don't know of any arrangement like that anywhere in the county," said Dennis Callahan, the former Annapolis mayor who recently became head of the county Recreation and Parks Department.

"It wasn't until I was here that I was aware that it was happening," Callahan said. "I viewed it as highly unusual, and something that needed to be addressed."

Kramer, 48, said six county parks directors have given their blessings to the set-up. "I've always been very up front," he said. "Everyone knows what I do."

But top county administrators said they were baffled by the arrangement -- and by others that seem to have been cobbled together without uniformity.

Somehow, they said, the desire to keep a round-the-clock vigil over acres of remote, limited-access parkland has resulted in a hodgepodge of caretaker agreements. All of them, Callahan said, are extremely generous to the people fortunate enough to land them.

In addition to Kramer, three other county employees live rent-free while performing maintenance duties at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, Thomas Point Park and Beverly Triton Beach Park. Five parks superintendents live rent-free in county-owned homes, and another 12 employees pay nominal monthly fees ranging from $100 to $400.

Most of them receive free utilities, except telephone service, and the county pays for most major repairs.

Kramer said it would be unfair to characterize the arrangement as a sweetheart deal.

"It's more than just living in a house at the park," he said. "It's a lot more than that."

Large responsibilities

Over the summer, Kramer and three other part-timers help oversee weddings, corporate retreats and a six-week camp for disabled children. Some gatherings are for groups as large as 1,500, though most are smaller.

Most of the events take place on weekends, and all are between April and November.

"It'd be like having 1,200 people in your backyard from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening, and you're responsible for everything," said Jay Cuccia, the county's chief of park facilities, and Kramer's immediate supervisor for 12 years.

"He performs an important service for the county, and has done so without a complaint for as long as I've been here," Cuccia said.

But many of the parks where employees are living are visited far less frequently. Figuring how to watch over such vast acreage is a problem that has bedeviled Arundel and other Maryland jurisdictions.

Baltimore County revamped its policy on caretakers in March after officials there realized that workers had been living rent-free in 17 county parks in exchange for services that included opening park gates, picking up litter and cleaning restrooms.

The state Department of Natural Resources assigns 80 state employees, most of them forest and park rangers, to housing on state parklands.

Looking at others' policies

The state officials have also grappled with questions about housing policies, according to Marvin Bond, a former state employee who is now chief of staff to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.

"We're looking to the state, and to Baltimore County to determine just how to handle this," Bond said. "We realized we had no written policies, and we wanted to make some sense of things."

Callahan said he is studying the issue and has promised Owens he will deliver a report, and a proposed solution, by July.

As for Kramer's future with the county, Callahan had no comment.

He will be leaving his other job -- as a deputy to the director of the Annapolis City Recreation and Parks Department -- shortly. He was hired last week as athletic director at St. Mary's High School in Annapolis.

"We were getting ready to take a closer look at it, but now we don't have to," said Mayor Dean L. Johnson, who recently learned of Kramer's dual public positions. "But we were certainly concerned about the potential for conflicts."

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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