Shifting parks funds not good government

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

April 28, 2002|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

SO IT'S official, the confiscation of $1.7 million paid by users of Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks services and facilities during the past five years - paid only by those customers, not all taxpayers.

The money has been taken by you, County Executive James N. Robey, to pay in the coming budget year for government expenses not yet designated.

Pardon this contrarian opinion, but justifying your decision in the name of good government, as you did last week, simply is off-key. And we're factoring in what your budget director said about recreation and parks supposedly not keeping any surplus it generated. Truth is, that's a budgetary faucet that had been left flowing since the mid-1990s but is now being turned off.

Jim, let's be forthright here: This being an election year, shuffling that money from the next budget's recreation and parks "pocket" to the vague, general fund "pocket" was politically expedient. And yes, we sense your pain over revenue projections falling out of the proverbial bed.

Nevertheless, you're taking the money so you won't have to cut items with louder constituencies or, heaven forbid, raise taxes in one of the nation's 10 richest counties by a few bucks a year, which appears unavoidable anyway. A nudge on the local income tax would be the cheapest, fairest way for all, but then, heck, even one penny on the property tax locally - also cheap but agreed, not as fair - generates $2.4 million.

You're trying to save what you think might be your hide on Nov. 4, Election Day. Mainly, you fear some school supporters who are quick to yell bloody murder if a few extra cents in government revenue - and now, bottom line, revenue from any public agency - doesn't get allocated to their causes. Schools consume, what, 63 percent of county government's total operating revenue? Recreation and parks require less than 1 percent.

Even two of your current and one of your former advisers on recreation and parks issues had the courage to publicly question your actions last week. The score reported in this newspaper was 3-zip against what you've done, Jim. Unprecedented.

Fact also is this: You're taking the money because you understand that recreation and parks users and advocates love keeping score, although few, if any, do it for the never-ending games politicians play.

What they need to do is band together, even loosely, and yell bloody murder, too, to every candidate for school board, County Council, and county executive - before, during and after this and every Election Day.

The best shot at building political leverage among local recreation groups, a sport council, was announced in January but has convened only once.

Yet that council, if it ever meets again, seems likely to be buried in the advisory board to the county's Department of Recreation and Parks.

Yes, Jim, you knew confiscating what should be a $1.7 million pittance -which some recreation supporters would deem thoughtful management - in a proposed $824 million operating budget was safe. You did it even though the money was "user fees," bureaucratese for extra taxation of recreation and parks customers.

But what's wrong with them expecting something tangible for their money? Just what will their $1.7 million buy now? Overtime to save us from terrorists? More trailers to plop in front of new schools? Better snow plows? With clarity on your part, at least recreation and parks customers might be able to rationalize that their politician-jacked money will serve some specific public good.

Jim, you've also articulated a dubious new county policy. That is, if citizens want to use their spare time to play in Howard County - be it sports, cooking classes, dance or historic preservation - the money they pony up for the relevant public agency can be used for anything else at the county executive's whim.

For years, politicians here have slashed and obstructed things recreational to the point that not even half the department's $8 million operating budget is shared equally by all local taxpayers. Now you're extending that policy by, to be blunt, ripping off money that users paid specifically to play.

But we dislike being so negative, Jim. Honest.

Why, maybe school administrators can use some of that $1.7 million for more "in-service" workshops on Fridays for teachers, thus buying students more four-day classroom weeks for the price of five. Surely, we don't have enough of them now.

Pain, no gain

Grit your teeth and assure yourself that democracy is tedious, but in the end, it works. That's all that can be said politely about the last-minute appeal to Circuit Court of a special zoning exception granted the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County for its new, 10-field complex on Centennial Lane roughly opposite Centennial Park.

The Planning Board, traffic and other consultants, and the Board of Appeals all concluded the same thing: The proposal satisfied county law. No community opposition was organized. And it's hard to imagine a Board of Appeals case in which rights of so few, ill-informed opponents were so meticulously guarded. This appeal - the appellants' democratic right, true - is a pain without merit.

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