Senators question officials over jail

Balto. County legislators focus on $70 million expansion in Towson

Residents sought the meeting

January 25, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County senators grilled the Ruppersberger administration on its $70 million plan to expand the Towson jail yesterday, but ultimately they acknowledged that it might be difficult to derail the project until a new county executive is elected.

Residents who live near the county Detention Center on Kenilworth Drive requested the meeting with the county's senatorial delegation in Annapolis, saying they had no opportunity for input before County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger announced his expansion plan in 2000.

The county has said it expects the state to fund half of the project.

Opponents failed to defeat a bond issue for the jail in 2000 and could not persuade the County Council to block the project in a series of votes.

Now, as the county has begun demolition to make way for the expansion, the opponents are seeking to eliminate state money for the project in hopes of at least delaying it until after the November election, after which a new executive will take over.

The county has requested $5 million for the project from the state this year. Budget and Finance Director Fred Homan said that if the state cut the money, it would not delay construction.

Representatives of the county gave a presentation outlining the need for jail beds - "We're way beyond double-bunking," said Jail Administrator James P. O'Neill - and explaining efforts to reduce community concerns over parking, traffic, trash, noise, security and appearance of the building.

Opponents countered by saying a jail is inappropriate near the churches, schools, homes and businesses in the neighborhood. They also said the county should have studied the feasibility of building a jail on another site where there would be more room for future expansion.

"I'm not asking the county to do another study; I'm asking the county to do the study it should have done in the first place," said Cathi Forbes, a co-founder of the Coalition for Open Government, an anti-expansion group.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican who represents Towson, grilled county officials on whether they had examined sending inmates to privately run jails or providing more lawyers for indigent defendants at bail hearings to reduce the need for expansion.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who sent Ruppersberger a letter asking him to conduct a study of alternative sites, suggested that derailing the project would be difficult because voters approved a bond issue.

"I'm sorry the county executive did not take the opportunity to do a study that encompasses all possible areas, but I think the oppositional barrier has been raised higher when you've had a ballot question," Hoffman said.

The Capital Budget Subcommittee will not consider the politics of the expansion but rather whether it is a good investment of state money, said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and the subcommittee's chairman.

Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat and chairman of the county's senatorial delegation, said the meeting was valuable because it gave residents the opportunity to be heard by public officials before a decision is made.

Even if the Ruppersberger administration says it doesn't need the state money to expand the jail, cutting the funds would make an impression on Ruppersberger's successor, Collins said.

"I think if the state sends a clear message to Baltimore County that they're not satisfied with this process, it would put the next administration in a position to examine this again," he said.

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