Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens is getting her name out to the public - in 5-inch-tall aluminum letters.
More than 4 1/2 years after being elected - but much closer to a possible run for higher office - the second-term Democrat's administration spent county money to install her name on the five large roadside "welcome" signs at major county gateways. She is the first county executive to have her name adorn those signs.
The lettering was hung on the brick arches last week, at a cost of $2,312.50, county officials said.
That's less than a thousandth of 1 percent of the county operating budget, but the spending occurs as Owens stresses that the county is enduring its toughest economic times in 10 years. Last night, the County Council came up a vote short of freezing wages for five unions, as scheduled. Owens then said about 35 employees must be laid off.
That timing is not lost on officials of employee unions or council members.
"I think we need to establish that we cut every program, every expense we could before we ask an employee to" forgo a pay raise, said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk. O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county Fraternal Order of Police, called it "just another slap in the face."
Added Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr.: "The timing is a little bit of a concern. Twenty-three hundred dollars certainly doesn't solve the budget situation, but we really need to mind every penny at this point."
The signs display Owens' name to drivers heading into Anne Arundel County on westbound U.S. 50 at the Bay Bridge, eastbound U.S. 50 at the Prince George's County line, northbound Route 3 at Route 450 near the Prince George's County line, southbound Fort Smallwood Road at the Baltimore line and southbound Ritchie Highway at the Baltimore line.
Through a spokesman, Owens referred all questions about the signs to Fred Schram, the county's central services officer.
Schram said he received permission for the project from Owens' chief administrative officer.
"It was my attempt to personalize those signs," he said. "I wanted to put a name with the county. It was kind of stark with just `Welcome.' "
An average of 220,000 vehicles will pass Owens' name each day, according to traffic counts by the State Highway Administration and the Maryland Transportation Authority.
That's a lot of voters, some observers said.
Term limits will force Owens to give up her job in 2006, but she does not appear to have any intention of leaving public office. She recently held a fund-raiser that collected $150,000, and supporters say she would make a good candidate for governor or lieutenant governor.
"To me this is a taxpayer's political announcement," said Keith W. Wright, president of the county firefighters union. "Why wasn't she concerned about having her name on them for the last four years?"
Former County Executive O. James Lighthizer said he displayed his name on smaller, metal signs but wanted to keep the brick arches "classy."
Former County Executive John G. Gary, a Republican who lost to Owens in the 1998 election, said he never considered adding his name to the arches, which were paid for by private donations in the 1980s. Most people passing through the county aren't local voters.
But if Owens is considering a statewide race, he said, she could reap a political benefit to having her name in the spotlight. "I don't know of any other reason to do it," Gary said.
Politics didn't play a part in the letter-hanging, said Schram, Owens' former chief of staff.
"We're creating an image for the county and part of that image is a person," he said.
"Somebody might say it's the wrong time. I say there's never a wrong time to personalize."