Pageant won't pay for police overtime

Tab for 19 days of security for Miss USA contest is $42,333

`The spirit of regional cooperation'

June 12, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

The spectacle of 51 beauty queens slumbering in suburbia has long worn off, but the cost of keeping stalkers away from them has not.

Howard County paid its police officers $42,333 in overtime to keep snoops at bay during late March and early April, and the Miss USA organization is not going to pay taxpayers back for it.

The tab for 19 days of police escorts and round-the-clock security at the Sheraton Columbia hotel would more than cover the starting salary of a Howard County police officer. It also is unusual for the county to provide free security to a private, for-profit organization.

"We did ask the question whether or not reimbursement would be provided, and it was made pretty clear to us that it wouldn't," said Victoria Goodman, a spokeswoman for County Executive James N. Robey. "We went forward in the spirit of regional cooperation."

Local and state tourism officials promoted a 12-minute video montage of Maryland's most glittering sites, which aired during the April 12 Miss USA event on NBC, as a marketing coup worth $4 million.

It is unclear, though, how much the event cost the state in lobbying for the pageant, tending to the contestants' needs, blocking streets and holding receptions with local politicians. It is even harder to know how many additional visitors and tax revenue the exposure reaped, local officials said.

But taxpayer advocate Pat Dornan, a frequent Robey critic, said the event was one of the few economic development coups for Howard County's tax base.

"That put Howard County on the map for a few seconds," he said. "Some other type of high-profile event may take place here because of the reception Miss USA contestants got."

Although locals may have known the contestants were being whisked to and from the Sheraton every day, it is doubtful the rest of the world did. No print news organization outside of the Baltimore-Washington area mentioned the pageant's Columbia or Howard County connection, according to a Lexis-Nexis search.

Viewership of the event hit near record lows at about 8.1 million, a drop of about 5 million from last year. In the Baltimore area, the show ranked a strong second in its time slot.

The brief glimpses of Howard County sites - a shot of the host hotel, Ellicott City's Main Street, Jordan's Steakhouse and a tree-planting ceremony at Patapsco Female Institute - required some work on the part of Howard tourism officials, although viewers likely lost them amid the broader promotion of Maryland.

As a handful of contestants posed for a video shot in front of the Ellicott City railroad bridge on the Patapsco River, Howard County officers blocked evening rush-hour traffic on Main Street, a two-lane road often flooded with traffic. The backup snaked into Baltimore County as far as the eye could see.

Other events do not get quite the same treatment.

The Columbia Festival of the Arts, which also hosts LakeFest, hires its security.

The school district allots each high school $23,000 to pay for security at sports events and dances. Hiring off-duty Howard County officers on overtime for fours hours of basketball game coverage costs about $360 - each officer earns $45 an hour on average, said Steve Drummond, the school district's security coordinator.

School spokeswoman Patti Caplan said that when playing host to prominent guests, leaders cannot always be sure that they are getting the better end of the deal.

She said that when President Clinton came to Howard County to announce an education initiative, the district encountered thousands of dollars in unexpected costs, such as resodding a lawn that the president's helicopter destroyed.

"When you look at it, is the event really as beneficial as it costs?" Caplan said. "But sometimes, you're not given a choice. You don't get to ask, `When would you like to come?' Instead, you're told when they're coming."

The Miss USA arrangement is most similar to the county's security arrangement with General Growth's Merriweather Post Pavilion, which attracted 225,000 visitors last year.

Howard County's SWAT team monitors the concert venue's perimeter in case of an emergency. Merriweather doesn't directly pay for that service, but it did pay about $350,000 in entertainment taxes to the state last year, 95 percent of which comes back to Howard County, Merriweather manager Jean Parker said.

Goodman said that in a similar fashion, tax revenue from the 100 hotel rooms contestants and their entourages booked and the money they spent at local stores and restaurants will trickle back to the county's general fund.

She also said that county staff members checked with Police Chief Wayne Livesay to make sure he could cover the expense within his overtime budget. During spring break, the department also assigned officers normally working at high schools to Miss USA security details, which prevented additional overtime.

Police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said that officers recorded only one incident during the contestants' stay. One competitor received a suspicious package with no return address at the hotel. Dogs sniffed the package for explosives and found nothing.

"There were some concerns about the Americana level of this," Goodman said. "This group included one person representing each state - almost like an icon of America. That may have caused a little higher level of concern.

"A lot of damage could have been done in a small place when a hotel houses one representative from each state. It's not your usual gathering."

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