A failure to communicate

Regionalism: Hippodrome funding dispute reveals fragile condition of city-county relations.

May 23, 2000

ALTHOUGH it is one of the smaller items in Baltimore County's $1.79 billion budget, a $250,000 grant to rebuild Baltimore's historic Hippodrome Theater has turned out to be the most controversial.

The dispute over this grant reveals that despite good intentions, the smallest misstep can easily derail city-county projects.

It all started when the county tentatively agreed to kick in $500,000 for the Hippodrome renovation. The money was to be paid in two $250,000 increments.

But in March, County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger agreed to double the contribution after Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, asked for a larger amount.

Mr. Rawlings said Baltimore County should pay a bigger share of the $56 million Hippodrome renovation because marketing studies show most of the patrons likely will be county residents.

That rankled county council members, who hadn't been told about the larger commitment. They coyly said they'd review it, and in their budget deliberations reduced the Hippodrome appropriation to the original $250,000.

In turn, their actions sent Mr. Rawlings off, prompting him to threaten to "delay or disapprove" future city-county projects.

In the end, Mr. Rawlings relented after he heard of the trouble his outburst had created. The council now has agreed -- for now -- to make up the difference with a $750,000 contribution next year.

The lesson? City-county relations require patience and communication; they won't benefit from blustery posturing or over-commitment. If everyone had been notified of these dealings up-front, the tiff over the Hippodrome could have been avoided.

Baltimore County has generously supported city institutions. Next year, it will contribute about $2.5 million, almost double what it gave three years ago. For that kind of relationship to continue, both jurisdictions' leadership need to proceed with cooler heads.

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