Partying Getting Toned Down

State, Local Officials Spending More Modestly On Annual Gathering Due To Tough Times

August 11, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

State and local officials headed to Ocean City for their annual convention this week are in a quandary: how to justify swank receptions and beach parties when times are tough and budgets are tight.

Gov. Martin O'Malley decided over the weekend to cancel his planned reception for about 500 guests Friday at the nightclub Seacrets, saving the state $12,301.88 that would have gone for an open bar and renting the space. He and his aides concluded it wouldn't be appropriate to put on the soiree while the state is facing budget shortfalls of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Others, like Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore County Chief Executive James T. Smith Jr., have concluded that the party must go on - as long as taxpayers aren't paying. Dixon is throwing a "Baltimore on the Shore Beach Party" at Castaway's on Thursday, and Smith is hosting a reception that night at the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel. Those events are paid for by sponsors and campaign funds.

"Quite frankly, this is about having some fun!" the invitation to Smith's event reads.

The summer convention organized by the Maryland Association of Counties is billed as an opportunity for state and local governments to share information and attend policy discussions on such topics as public safety and swine flu. Traditionally, it's also been an opportunity to do some nighttime networking and to rub elbows with politicians from across the state.

But the recession is having a trickle-down impact. As the state and localities struggle to balance budgets, they are sending fewer representatives to the four-day conference. O'Malley, at least, also is saving on the fun.

"While relatively speaking we're certainly not talking millions of dollars, this is nonetheless an expense during a time of budget considerations that probably would not have been appropriate," spokesman Shaun Adamec said.

The state Department of Business and Economic Development would have picked up the tab for the governor's party. O'Malley, a Democrat, did host a reception paid for with state funds at the Maryland Municipal League conference at a cost of $4,361.72, but even that party attended by about 300 had been scaled back with less open-bar time, Adamec said.

Also, the municipal league conference was held in late June - before the governor announced he would have to cut the current fiscal year's budget by more than $700 million to cover a shortfall.

Conference cutbacks affect local businesses that depend on event traffic. Seacrets general manager Rico Rossi said his business is struggling to match last year's profits while not raising prices. "I've never heard so many 'What's on special?' questions," he said.

For their part, Smith and Dixon are inviting about the same number of guests as they did last year, about 1,100 and 900, respectively, said Rachael Rice, president of Rice Consulting, a political consulting firm planning the Democrats' events. The cost: about $20 to $25 a head plus taxes and gratuity, she said.

Sponsoring Dixon's party are communications firms Verizon and Motorola; health care firm Kaiser Permanente, and contractor ACS State and Local Solutions, while Smith's campaign account paid for his party, Rice said. More sponsors were interested in contributing this year, she said.

"I have not felt a difference with the recession. I'm hopeful that's a very good sign for the economy," Rice said.

The mayor's administration is reducing its city-paid contingent to six attendees from 10 last year, spokesman Scott Peterson said, musing that Dixon might have to pitch in and man the city's information booth. He said taxpayers should consider the trip "an investment" to ensure Baltimore's interests are heard, especially as localities compete for a dwindling pot of state aid.

Baltimore County is sending 15 people, the smallest contingent in years and down from 22 people last year, said Don Mohler, a spokesman for Smith. Mohler said the reception's motto was intended to poke fun at the county executive, who frequently uses the phrase, "Quite frankly."

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