Balto. Co. budget cut stirs anger

Rawlings threatens to withhold funds over Hippodrome issue

Lawmaker sends letter

Council slashed $1 million promised by Ruppersberger

May 19, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Enraged by promises broken, an influential state lawmaker has threatened to withhold money for Baltimore County-related projects unless the County Council agrees to spend $1 million on the Hippodrome Theater during the next two years.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings of Baltimore, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, said it was a "travesty" that the County Council decided this week to reduce this year's funding from the county for the $56 million Hippodrome redevelopment project in Baltimore City from $500,000 to $250,000.

"If this is going to be Baltimore County government's attitude toward regional cooperation in the future, then I will have no qualms in seeking to delay or disapprove projects of mutual benefit to Baltimore City and Baltimore County," Rawlings said in a letter to Joseph Bartenfelder, chairman of the County Council.

Several council members said last night that they will rethink their tentative reduction in Hippodrome funds before Thursday's final budget vote. But they said they will not be swayed by threats, and two of the seven council members said they are unlikely to change their minds.

"I don't mind reconsidering it," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a North County-Owings Mills Republican. "But on the other hand, I'm not going to be pushed into anything by the county executive, Pete Rawlings or anybody else."

Rawlings sought a firm commitment from the county for the theater in March, as the General Assembly was considering its $16.5 million share of the renovations. Baltimore leaders have agreed to provide $6 million over three years for the project, a key to the city's west-side revitalization plans.

Eager to show city-county cooperation, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger told Rawlings that the county would spend $1 million over two years. The pledge came a few weeks after Ruppersberger and Mayor Martin O'Malley announced a shared package of initiatives.

Ruppersberger, a likely candidate for governor in 2002, could benefit from the support of city leaders in a run for higher office.

Theater proponents say studies show Baltimore County residents would be the heaviest users of the theater, which would stage shows of Broadway caliber. The county traditionally has backed city cultural projects. Its $1.79 billion budget for 2000-2001 includes $2.4 million in city arts spending.

"They made a deal. We participated. I think it's outrageous," Rawlings said. "This project would not have been funded [by the state] if it wasn't for the strong support the county executive gave to it."

Ruppersberger didn't tell the County Council he was going to commit $500,000 a year. Months earlier the council had discussed the possibility of giving half as much to the project. The executive drafts the county budget and sets priorities, and council members have the power to cut it.

They used that power this week, proposing to cut $3.2 million, including $250,000 for the Hippodrome and $100,000 for Port Discovery.

Councilman Wayne T. Skinner, a Towson Republican, said he received several calls from voters angry about Ruppersberger's $1 million commitment. But he never talked with the executive, he said.

"How can you explain to your constituents that there is no money for them but there is money for a speculative project in Baltimore City?" Skinner said. "It doesn't sit well."

Skinner said he does not support more than $250,000 for the theater this year. Nor does Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat. "I had a lot of people from the community tell me that that [$1 million] was too much," he said.

Bartenfelder said there is "a strong sentiment on the council to cut it altogether." Bartenfelder, a former delegate, said of Rawlings, "He's got to lighten up a little. He's got to remember we're old friends."

Rawlings wrote the letter just as a top aide to Ruppersberger was lobbying council members to replace the funding. Robert J. Barrett said he thought he had secured the four needed votes and was getting "good vibes" from council members. That was before they saw the Rawlings letter.

Barrett acknowledged that the Ruppersberger administration erred in not telling the council earlier about the $1 million pledge.

"This happened in Annapolis when a lot was going on," Barrett said. "This happened quickly. We should have done a better job."

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