Howard Community College President Kate Hetherington promised this week to return $1.7 million in surplus public funds used without county government knowledge to help buy the historic Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge.
The college was supposed to rely on donated cash for its half of the $4.4 million purchase. But sufficient contributions didn't materialize, and college officials disclosed earlier this month that they instead had used money left over from last year's budget to complete the transaction. The rest of the purchase came from the county government.
"They didn't have the authority to use anything but donor funds," said Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.
Other large agencies, such as schools and county libraries system, return surplus money or ask for specific approval for a new use, county officials said.
College officials worked on a fix over the past week.
Their solution: When the school sells a 13-acre portion of the 81-acre property, the proceeds will be used to repay the surplus. No sale is imminent, however.
The promise, made at a County Council hearing and backed by a signed letter to County Executive Ken Ulman and each council member, is the latest in a string of difficulties involving Belmont since the college took over operation of the 18th-century estate in 2004.
First, the college erected a huge metal exhaust fan visible over the kitchen of the 18th-century estate home used for conferences, weddings and to teach college students the hospitality business and culinary arts.
Then former college President Mary Ellen Duncan admitted to state legislators that $1 million she had said was a "gift" to help pay for the original purchase of Belmont by the Howard County Community College Foundation was actually a loan from a developer who hoped to build on some of the land.
The historic property was first purchased by the college's foundation but was later acquired by the school itself after the disclosure that a developer on the foundation board and involved in the purchase hoped to use some of the land for senior housing.
All along, a group of Elkridge residents, including immediate neighbors of the secluded estate, have strongly opposed the college's involvement, fearing it would lead to private development and disrupt the ambience of the estate and the surrounding area. They formed a private Save Belmont group to oppose the college's plans.
Belmont is at the edge of Patapsco State Park and is accessible only via a winding, one-lane private road. Much of the nearby land owned by residents is permanently preserved as open space.
In the letter, Hetherington acknowledged that under state law, county officials "have final authority to approve the operating and capital budget of the college." Hetherington agreed to regularly share budget data and audits.
Critics, including Elkridge residents Cathy Hudson and Dale N. Schumacher, have sought to convince the council this spring that the college is pouring money into Belmont, which is still not breaking even. But Hudson called the latest development the possible "beginning of a new era."