Plans for probation office draw criticism

Residents fear renovation will mean more clients

January 07, 2004|By Lynn Anderson and Laura Vozzella | Lynn Anderson and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Plans to renovate Baltimore's main probation office has upset neighbors, who have been lobbying the state Board of Public Works to delay a vote on the project scheduled for today.

The board will consider spending $1.5 million for initial architecture and engineering work, part of a larger project to rehabilitate an office of the state Division of Parole and Probation.

The office, at 2100 Guilford Ave., handles about 31,000 visits a month, mostly from probationers in need of drug testing or other services, said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The construction will not expand the building or increase the number of probationers who visit it, Vernarelli said. The project will update the 1920s-era building, which was built as the state's first motor vehicle office and has been used by the division for 34 years, he said.

Vernarelli said he did not know the total cost of the project. Residents said they had been told it would cost $18 million to $20 million.

"We're not adding to or subtracting from the volume," Vernarelli said. "The clientele is not going to change and the services are not going to expand."

But residents in the area are skeptical, saying they believe the office will be expanded. They distributed fliers at a nearby elementary school yesterday and plan to go to Annapolis today to attend the board meeting.

"Our concern is that this facility should never have been placed in this community and if they expand it will never leave," said the Rev. G. Stanley Steele, executive vice president for housing and community development with Diakon, a Lutheran social ministries organization.

Community leaders and residents say the facility has been a concern for years. It is across the street from Dallas Nicholas Elementary School and near the headquarters of the Baltimore City Public School System.

"Crowds of clients who congregate outside of the office on warm days must be negotiated by children on their way home from school," said William P. Miller, executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, Inc., who attended a meeting of community leaders Monday at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Miller said that recently a Dallas Nicholas student was offered $5 from an ex-offender if the child would provide the man with a jar of urine.

School secretary Vanessa Thompson said probation officials are sending clients to the school to use the bathrooms. Vernarelli said that was not true.

"Under no circumstances would we ever send someone to the school to use the bathroom," Vernarelli said.

He said the office has tried to be a good neighbor, with its staff holding food and clothing drives to benefit the school.

Steele said that he and other community leaders have contacted government officials in Annapolis as well as City Hall in hopes of delaying a vote on the matter for 60 days. Steele said that would give residents an opportunity to meet with officials in the state Department of General Services, which owns the property, and learn more about the state's plans for the facility.

Anne Hubbard, a spokeswoman for General Services, said yesterday that she expected the funding to remain on the board's agenda today.

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