Bus depot plan slipped through, auditor says

Budget description to council called vaguely worded

November 17, 2006|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

In the wake of residents' complaints that they were blindsided by plans for a bus depot in Jacksonville, a report by the county auditor concludes that the project was slipped past the County Council during the budget process.

The depot was approved in May by the council as part of the budget after school officials asked the county executive for a place where buses from Jacksonville Elementary, Carroll Manor Elementary, Cockeysville Middle and Dulaney High schools could be parked.

A 5,000-gallon gasoline tank and a 10,000-gallon diesel fuel tank would be located above ground as part of the project.

But it was only this fall that the plan came to the attention of elected officials and some residents in Jacksonville, the site of a 25,000-gallon gasoline leak this year.

"No one knew about it," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, who represents northern Baltimore County, adding that he doesn't remember approving the funds for the depot.

McIntire requested a report on the approval process for the project, wanting to know how the depot could have been approved without the council being notified of its inclusion in the budget. In an Oct. 31 report to McIntire, county auditor Brian J. Rowe responded that the description of the depot given to council members had been general and vague.

"Consequently, little information was provided to alert the general public of the potential issues and hazards," Rowe wrote.

McIntire, who opposes building a depot in Jacksonville, said the project wasn't among budget items recommended by the Planning Board and reviewed by the council, having been added later by the executive and lumped in with other transportation projects.

Donald I. Mohler III, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., said the project was clearly marked in the budget.

But in response to community concerns about the bus depot, Mohler said the executive has asked the school system to review its analysis of whether the bus lot is necessary in Jacksonville.

County officials also are looking at alternatives to the proposed location, a former Nike missile base behind a senior center on Paper Mill Road, Mohler said. The county landfill off Warren Road in Cockeysville is among the other locations being reviewed, Mohler said yesterday.

The reason that the Paper Mill location was chosen was because the county owns the property and Department of Public Works employees use the site to practice driving the department's vehicles, Mohler said.

Although county officials have assured residents that the tanks would be safe and that a leak would be easy to detect, Jacksonville residents are leery, in part because the gasoline leak from a Exxon-Mobil station discovered in February still is being cleaned up.

"Right now, Jacksonville looks like a war zone, with the all equipment that's there to clean up," McIntire said. "The people in Jacksonville have been sensitized ever since the spill about property values and health issues. And then, here comes the bus depot."

A proposal for another bus lot - in Perry Hall - also has prompted neighborhood opposition.

County officials promised last month that highway engineers also would conduct a traffic study in the Jacksonville area before the project moves forward.

County police conducted a study in mid-October on Paper Mill Road that found drivers generally obey the 40 mph speed limit, and a traffic engineering study finished Oct. 19 concluded that the roads were safe in the area. That added to Jacksonville residents' fury about the project, because many residents say they can remember serious recent accidents in the area where the depot is proposed.

"The people who live there say there are more accidents, more speeding and more traffic than what appears to be reflected in the reports," said Glen A. Thomas, president of the Greater Jacksonville Association.

Mohler said county officials plan to meet with community groups about the bus depot once all of the reviews are complete.

"I've assured them that this isn't a done deal," he said.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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