Town cool to `hot spot' idea

Crime: Rising Sun residents worry that accepting a crime-fighting grant will only bring bad publicity.

October 21, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

RISING SUN -- The money is there for the taking. But this small Cecil County town is ready to say "No thanks" to a six-figure windfall, even though it is designed to fight drug abuse and give children something to do after school.

The problem is that many residents don't want Rising Sun to be labeled a "hot spot" for crime.

"People will say, `That's a hot spot. It's full of dope. I'm not even going to think of moving there,' " Bill Brindle, a retired electrician, said at a town meeting this week.

After hearing Brindle and others who don't want to accept a grant under the state's HotSpots program, Rising Sun Mayor Sallie Teague declared the idea virtually dead.

"I get it: They don't want it," the mayor said.

Teague initially supported the proposal, which would have brought at least $140,000 and possibly as much as $400,000 to the town over the next four years. But given the opposition, she expects the town board to reject the offer when it comes up for a vote next week.

If that happens, it will be a rare event in the HotSpot program's two-year history.

Rising Sun's reluctance to accept money that has helped dozens of Maryland communities mystified and disappointed the Cecil County officials who had arranged for the grant.

"It seemed like property values and appearances were more important than the children of that community," said Phyllis Kilby, who represents the area on Cecil County's three-member Board of County Commissioners. "It's such a missed opportunity."

Eager to receive money in the program's second round of grants, Cecil officials had considered Rising Sun an ideal match, even if it does not fit the image of a crime-infested urban landscape.

It is a town of about 1,650, almost a square mile in size, where Main and Queen streets meet to form the one major intersection. The town's proposed "hot spot" is a short stretch of Main Street, about a tenth of a mile in each direction from the intersection.

In recent years, the town has been beset by nuisance crimes such as loitering and vandalism, along with a heroin problem that became impossible to ignore after a teen-ager who died of an overdose was found at the local baseball field.

Residents have shown a willingness to address their problems, a key element of the HotSpots program. They formed a drug task force and are raising money for a boys and girls club.

Cecil officials said they were prepared to apply for $80,000 to $100,000 a year for four years to pay for an after-school program for middle school students and other crime-fighting initiatives in Rising Sun, such as hiring additional police or training citizen patrols. They had been assured they would receive at least $35,000 a year for the after-school program.

"The county doesn't have resources like that to offer to our citizens. We have look to the state," said Angie Barnett, an assistant to the county commissioners who handles grant requests. "It could have done a lot of good for our county."

The HotSpots program was begun in 1997 by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Thirty-six communities are sharing $10.5 million over three years. Serious crime dropped by an average of 25 percent over the first two years in those communities, state officials say.

This year, the state added $3.5 million to the program and set out to name as many as 36 more "hot spots." Several neighborhoods in Baltimore, including Highlandtown, East Baltimore Midway and Govans, were added to the program.

It is not unheard of for communities to decline to participate in the program. Invitations to apply for grants go out to all municipalities in the state, and many do not reply, said Michael A. Sarbanes, director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

Cecilton initially expressed interest in the program but withdrew after noting concerns about being labeled a hotbed of crime. But Sarbanes could not recall another community that resisted the kind of push that Rising Sun received from county officials.

The officials made a last-ditch effort Tuesday night to sell the idea to a group of about 45 Rising Sun residents. They told the residents about plans for the after-school program and for better monitoring of residents on parole or probation. They told them about required matching funds that amounted to pennies a day for each of the town's residents.

Some residents liked the idea. Others, including businessman Bud McFadden, were not sold.

McFadden, part owner of the town's Western Auto franchise, said Rising Sun should solve its own problems and avoid the "hot spot" label.

"This is a neat little town, and we're proud of it," McFadden said. "It's still a small town extraordinaire."

Sarbanes said the proposal, if nothing else, got town residents to brainstorm on strategies to address their problems. For instance, complaints at Tuesday night's meeting prompted Rising Sun Police Chief George Walker to promise to change patrol schedules to combat loitering and vandalism after school is dismissed in the afternoon.

Kilby said she was baffled that residents would turn down money that could help solve the town's problems.

"I'm still trying to work this out logically, how a stigma -- or a perceived stigma, because I don't think it is a stigma -- can outweigh money for programs for children," she said.

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