Council cool to ice rink funding

Some would cut money to reopen park facility

May 09, 2007|By Dan Lamothe | Dan Lamothe,Sun Reporter

A plan to repair and reopen the ice rink at Quiet Waters Park might be on the chopping block as school officials and nonprofit agencies continue to plead for more funding in Anne Arundel's fiscal 2008 budget, two County Council members said yesterday.

Councilman Josh Cohen, an Eastport Democrat who represents the Annapolis area, including the park, said several council members have approached him in recent days to suggest cutting the money for the rink, which has been closed since 2003.

Cohen, who predicted the topic would come up at tonight's public hearing on County Executive John R. Leopold's $1.44 billion spending plan, supports funding rink repairs now to save money in the long run, because the cost keeps rising.

The project would cost $2 million, with $1.25 million covered by the state's Program Open Space fund, Cohen said. The county would cover the rest.

"It's a lot of money [for the rink], and I know some of the other council members are eyeing it for a cut," he said.

One of those members is Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Piney Orchard Democrat. Benoit said he cannot see himself supporting the skating rink funding, considering that Leopold reduced funding $3.17 million from this year's budget for nonprofit agencies and charities.

Benoit said it doesn't matter to him that the money set aside for the rink would come from a different source than the general operating budget, which supports the grant program.

"If [the philosophy] is going to be cut, cut in order to be a mean, lean county machine. ... I scratch my head a little at spending the money there [on a skating rink]," Benoit said. "Certainly, feeding the poor seems more important."

Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. said he had not yet taken a position on the rink's funding; the four other council members could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Since releasing his $1.44 billion budget on May 1, Leopold has come under fire from school officials, who would receive $812 million for next year, including less than half of the record $130 million budget increase they had requested.

Community activists and the heads of some nonprofit agencies have also blasted Leopold's decision to withhold grant money to counseling organizations, senior advocacy groups and charities.

Leopold, a Republican, has defended the cuts, saying he promised voters before he took office in December that he would seek to rid the county government of waste.

Yesterday, he said he would be able to reinstate some of the grant money if the council passes his proposed bingo tax. The council voted 6-0 Monday night to amend his bill to increase the amount of prize money handed out by Anne Arundel's three commercial bingo parlors, which would provide the county with additional revenue.

Leopold also defended the rink project, saying the county would lose the Program Open Space money if it goes unspent.

"Clearly, the rink was promised as any important amenity to be included in the Quiet Waters Park," Leopold said. "It was a major attraction for county residents."

The rink closed for the winters of 1994-95 and 1995-96 because of technical problems with the rink's cooling apparatus. It shut down for good in 2003, when a system of mats set up under the cooling apparatus was found to be leaking chemicals into a nearby pond, killing fish. County officials said at that time that they would not repair the rink until they could afford to put the project in the budget.

Last year, former County Executive Janet S. Owens proposed setting aside $1.7 million for the project, but the County Council declined to fund it, said John R. Hammond, the county's chief budget officer.

Phyllis Saroff, a board member of Friends of Quiet Waters Park, said the group has raised about $25,000 in hopes that the rink would be reopened, and spent nearly all of it on a high-quality sound system and a skate sharpener, Saroff said. The sound system is in storage.

She said she was pleased to see Leopold include money in his budget for the project this year and hopes the council will approve it.

"To me, it makes no sense to have a facility like that and not have it utilized," Saroff said.

Dennis Callahan, Leopold's chief of staff, said he has mixed feelings on the rink project.

"I just recall it as a constant headache," said Callahan, who previously served as the county's director of recreation and parks. "But when it was functioning, it was hard not to appreciate the beauty it had."

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