County and city fall short of goals

Legislative package of 2 jurisdictions wins only partial approval

April 23, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger promised unprecedented cooperation in Annapolis this year. But when they got to the capital, each often went his own way.

The result is that a first-of-its-kind, city-county legislative package announced with fanfare in February lost momentum, as O'Malley and Ruppersberger focused on local priorities -- crime and drugs in the city, and economic development in the county.

The biggest casualty was an ambitious proposal to create a team of 60 city and county police officers to reduce the number of outstanding arrest warrants. The county and the city asked for $5.8 million to create the Joint Warrant Task Force, but didn't get a penny.

The task force idea brimmed with promise in the immediate aftermath of the Feb. 7 shooting death of an off-duty Baltimore County police officer. Four men with lengthy criminal histories have been charged in the killing; two of the suspects were wanted on outstanding warrants at the time of the shooting.

"Aside from them announcing it, there was virtually no lobbying for that request," said Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Part of the problem was timing. O'Malley was inaugurated about five weeks before the Jan. 12 start of the legislative session, giving him little time to fill key administration posts and develop a strategy for getting money out of the General Assembly.

Ruppersberger and O'Malley unveiled their joint plans on Feb. 14, when the session was well under way. The task force funding proposal "came very late in the session for that type of request," Byrnie said.

The task force plan was one of five elements in the shared package of initiatives -- only one of which was fully approved.

Lawmakers agreed that suspects with outstanding arrest warrants should not be allowed to renew driver's licenses or register vehicles. Under HB 1259, the Motor Vehicle Administration will no longer issue licenses or plates to anyone wanted by police.

A second proposal, to have the state pay for streetscape projects in commercial corridors that cross city-county lines, earned a partial endorsement.

Ruppersberger and O'Malley also asked for a formal policy change in the State Transportation Enhancement Program to authorize city-county projects along thoroughfares such as York Road. What they got was a letter from Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari saying that the state "would be glad to work with [the city and the county] to develop joint projects."

The letter identified potential funding sources but made no firm commitments.

Also failing were proposals to require pawnshop owners to take digital photographs of their customers, and to speed up the appeals process for code-enforcement cases.

It's no surprise more parochial concerns took precedence over regionalism. Baltimore-area politicians didn't stray this year from the maxim that all politics is local.

The O'Malley administration focused on getting state money to assist city drug addicts and to reform an ailing court system.

"Clearly, [the city's] priority was drug treatment," Byrnie said. "We stepped up and provided $8 million in drug treatment, and then $5.4 million for beefing up the court system."

O'Malley asked for $25 million in anti-drug funding and was disappointed he didn't get more. Nonetheless, he said, "we've received [a larger] increase in drug money than we've ever seen before."

Ruppersberger was occupied by a fight to pass a proposal that would give the county the authority to condemn land for economic development. O'Malley aided that effort by writing a letter to the city delegation, asking them to support Ruppersberger's plan. The letter came at a critical time, as opponents were mounting a strategy against the proposal, which the Assembly approved.

Many observers said a foundation was built for future joint ventures.

City and county staffs and legislative delegations worked together closely, they say. For the political leaders, good relations are important. As the city loses population to the county, it needs allies in the suburbs to secure money for schools, the arts and other programs. And political observers say Ruppersberger cannot be successful in an expected run for governor in 2002 without the backing of city leaders.

"I think the cooperation was important," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Democrat whose district includes parts of the county and the city. "Now you have an activist mayor and an activist county executive. Next year will be very different. I think they will be gangbusters."

O'Malley said he and Ruppersberger worked well together in Annapolis. "He did what he could for us on the issue of drug treatment, and we did what we could for him on the issue of economic development," the mayor said.

He said he wasn't extremely disappointed about the lack of warrant task-force money, because funding increases for the state's parole and probation departments should aid in tracking fugitives.

The city also proposes to increase its warrant squad from five to 30 members under a new crime-fighting plan, O'Malley said.

Sun staff writer Gerald Shields contributed to this article.

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