County funding requests modest

Ruppersberger takes basic approach in quest for state aid

January 04, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Sharply curtailing his annual quest for state funding, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger released yesterday a relatively modest wish list for the coming legislative session that promises results while avoiding damaging battles.

Ruppersberger's 2001 legislative agenda includes money for parks, special education and technology, while steering clear of the kind of divisive economic development proposals that sapped the executive's energy for much of last year.

"I think it's a strong agenda, but an agenda without controversy," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat and chairman of the county's Senate delegation.

Among the requests made by the executive are $21.2 million for acquisition of parkland and renovations to parks and neighborhood playground equipment; $18 million for school construction, including New Town High School, a new building in Owings Mills, and an addition to Woodlawn High School; and $1 million for two assessment teams to determine how best to meet the needs of foster-care children in public schools.

Ruppersberger "captured the mood of the delegation," Collins said, by advancing proposals unlikely to polarize the General Assembly or county residents. That's a change from a year ago, when Ruppersberger unveiled Senate Bill 509 to much fanfare, then watched the initiative crumble because of the efforts of grass-roots activists who questioned its proposed expansion of county eminent domain authority.

S.B. 509 would have launched economic development projects in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown, but it was overturned at the ballot box in November after petitioners forced a referendum.

The setback appears to have diminished the executive's legislative appetite. A year ago, Ruppersberger asked for $70.6 million to fund specific projects, and got much of it. This year, price tags attached to specific requests add up to $40.2 million.

Urban Legacy initiative

Ruppersberger seems to have aligned his priorities with those of Gov. Parris N. Glendening in an effort to score some easy wins.

The executive's parks requests could capitalize on Glendening's proposed Urban Legacy initiative, which would boost funding for community recreation.

"Baltimore County must be prepared to take the governor up on his offer and get our fair share," said Ruppersberger, who outlined the county's agenda during a breakfast meeting with legislators at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson.

The county also seeks to take advantage of recommendations made by the Governor's Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence. If lawmakers heed the panel's findings, the county could receive an additional $6.6 million next year for special education, plus money for the foster-care assessments. Ruppersberger said he wants the state to pay for those studies because Maryland places more children in Baltimore County than in any other jurisdiction. The county serves 1,663 foster children who have moved from other places - mostly Baltimore City. Schools on the west side are grappling with the impact.

"We do not have qualified people to meet the needs of the students the state brings us," Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said yesterday. "It's something that has been brewing over the years."

The county's 2001 agenda also features a drop in the amount of school construction funding being sought. This year's request is less than half of the $41.6 million Ruppersberger asked for a year ago, when the county received $39.7 million. In 1999, the county requested $36 million and got $30 million.

But state figures show that less than 10 percent of the money the county received during the past two years has been spent - a figure much lower than those in many other jurisdictions. County officials say they are reluctant to ask for more until they make progress on projects in the planning stages.

"We've already received enough funding to renovate all of the elementary schools in the county, and we're busy working on those projects," Ruppersberger said. "We'll hold off on asking for more until we're ready to move on to the middle schools."

That strategy carries risk. If economic growth stalls, the county could find less money available. Del. Dan K. Morhaim, an Owings Mills Democrat, said he wasn't concerned about the drop in construction requests. "Not all things with schools are going to be solved with bricks and mortar," he said.

The county also is asking for a study to determine how its community colleges and health-care centers could become part of a planned statewide high-speed data network. No price was attached to the request.

"We may need to call upon all of our Baltimore County elected officials to include this concept in the Net.Work. Maryland plan," said Thomas G. Iler, the county's information technology director.

Regional priorities

Additionally, Ruppersberger is asking the state to consider resurfacing and widening the popular North Central Railroad Trail, and to endorse regional transportation priorities developed by a Baltimore Metropolitan Council study group. Ruppersberger is chairman of the council.

While the scaled-back agenda bears the imprints of the bruising fight over S.B. 509, Ruppersberger brushed aside concerns that the county delegation was fractured and could not perform with the same effectiveness as in the past.

"I remember hearing similar comments a few months ago about a certain football team in Baltimore," he said. "Just like the Ravens, it's time for us to pull together and focus on the ultimate goals we share. We're not punting this year."

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