Balto. County budget chief takes a temporary step up

Some want Smith to drop nominee and keep Homan as administrative officer

March 13, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

With Baltimore County's administrative officer off to the Ehrlich administration this month and Executive James T. Smith Jr. not ready for a confirmation battle over his nominee for second-in-command, the task of running the government day to day has fallen to Fred Homan, the county's dour budget chief for the past 14 years.

Some people see Homan as the driving force behind the county's ranking as one of the best-run municipal governments in America and its AAA bond ratings from all three major rating agencies. They hope Smith will forget about his nominee, Beverly Swaim-Staley, and keep Homan in the job - which John Wasilisin left to become deputy secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Other people fear that is just what's going to happen, seeing Homan's temporary promotion to administrative officer as the final step in his steady acquisition of power and influence over his 25-year career with the county. They see a government run by Homan as single-mindedly obsessed with buffering the county's bottom line, no matter what the costs are for neighborhoods and county employees.

Homan enjoys nearly unqualified respect from County Council members, who joke that he is such a ubiquitous figure that the Office of Budget and Finance should be renamed "The Department of Fred." Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, has openly suggested that Smith should make Homan the administrative officer permanently.

"He is extremely loyal to the county government, he's an extremely capable administrator and he has a masterly command of the budget," Kamenetz said.

Homan's supporters also laud him for being strongly opinionated on matters of county governance without being political. He has served under six county executives - and as budget chief for four of them, including Republican Roger B. Hayden.

"He, No. 1, was always there. He always followed through on things, and he always put his ideas across, and that was very important to me," Hayden said. "I didn't want people saying yes; I wanted them expressing their ideas whether they happened to agree with me or not."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who as county executive merged the offices of budget and finance and put Homan in charge of both, said Homan is one of the most competent people he has worked with.

Ruppersberger said he tried to get Homan to take the administrative officer post, but he refused because it would have taken him from his job of shepherding county finances.

"He's probably not happy at all about the fact that he's the acting administrative officer," Ruppersberger said.

The county's charter stipulates that if the administrative officer position is vacant, the county's budget officer takes over until the executive's nominee is confirmed by the council.

Homan has temporarily held the job before, but observers inside and outside county government said he is perceived by many as having the power of an administrative officer even if he does not have the title. Smith campaign insiders said one of the most frequently asked questions on the campaign trail was what Smith intended to do about Homan, who is considered perhaps the most influential figure in county government.

Smith renominated Homan for his job, but not before announcing he wanted Swaim-Staley - a strong manager in her own right and a former top administrator in the state Department of Transportation - as administrative officer. Smith has said he doesn't want to forward her nomination to the County Council for confirmation yet because he wants her to have a few months to acclimate to the county. She is serving as a senior adviser to Smith.

But if he did send her name to the council now, her confirmation chances are far from clear - last month, four councilmen voted against a resolution authorizing the $140,000 salary Smith promised Swaim-Staley, and some council members have questioned whether she has the right personality for the job.

"Personality" tends not to be the first word that comes up when people talk about Homan.

When he turned 50 in December, the County Council passed a tongue-in-cheek resolution noting that age has not diminished his ability "to disseminate boring and meaningless economic data that no normal person could possibly understand or even desire to read" or affected his "effervescent mind and scintillating personality."

Homan, who is married and has two children, earned a bachelor's degree in political science from East Stroudsburg State College in East Stroudsburg, Pa., and a law degree from the University of Baltimore. He has never worked anywhere but the Baltimore County government.

He refused to be interviewed or photographed and, reportedly, was mortified that anyone would write a story about him.

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