Baltimore County's budget process was a generally mild-mannered affair this year -- until the topic turned to a proposal to build a combination ice rink and indoor soccer-lacrosse facility in Reisterstown Regional Park.
Council members grilled the county's recreation and parks director about it. They brought in the executive director of the local revenue authority to provide background and financial information. They criticized the county's budget chief for providing too little information on the project, which is expected to cost taxpayers $2.5 million, and two others.
And when the council meets tomorrow to formally adopt a budget, it is expected to attach conditions to the money set aside for the rink.
Council members interviewed this week said they will likely tie the release of money for the rink and two other projects to getting more information on them and approving any necessary agreements.
"We're putting the money in the bank. They can't draw down on it until the council approves it," said Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat whose district includes two of the three projects.
The other two are a $2.85 million expansion of the Pikesville library and senior center and the purchase of land at the Rosewood Center complex in Owings Mills that could be used for a new school.
"The details are very sketchy on all three of these projects," Kamenetz said, adding that placing limits on the money will give the council "further oversight."
What bothered them most, council members said during the budget discussions and in later interviews, was that they were unaware that the three items would be included in County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s $1.45 billion budget proposal -- or, in some cases, were even being considered -- until Smith delivered his budget message last month.
"For some odd reason, I guess the executive branch felt it didn't have to communicate with the legislative branch," said Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat whose district includes the regional park.
Similar complaints were at the root of many of the early battles between Smith and the council after his 2002 election, but that relationship appeared to have improved more recently.
Yesterday, Donald Mohler, Smith's spokesman, said the executive has told his staff to come up with a way to ensure that the councilmen are aware of projects in their districts.
"The county executive is absolutely committed to having a positive relationship with the County Council," he said.
County officials said during the budget process last week that the rink project only came together in the weeks before Smith announced his spending plan.
The Baltimore County Revenue Authority had studied the concept of building an ice rink at the regional park but the quasi-governmental body, which operates parking facilities and golf courses in the county, was concerned that the facility could not generate enough revenue to justify the cost to build it, said George E. Hale, the authority's executive director.
After talks with county officials, though, the project was revamped into one that would house both an ice skating surface and a soccer-lacrosse field, he said.
The revenue authority, which collects about $14 million in fees a year, and the county would each pay half the cost of building the $5 million project. The county would also reimburse the authority for operating costs related to soccer and lacrosse activities, according to a memo from Hale to his board.
In Reisterstown, where there is a demand for recreational facilities, the project would be a welcome addition, said Bob Walker, president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council.
Walker, like the councilmen, said he was surprised to hear about the proposed facility, but said, "I can't imagine anyone in the community not being behind it."