State lawmakers urge changes for Balto. Co. Revenue Authority

Residents, lawmakers say more scrutiny needed

November 18, 2011|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

State lawmakers and some Baltimore County community leaders are pushing to change the way the county Revenue Authority procures contracts and sells land, saying the organization needs to be more accountable to the public as it operates parking lots, golf courses and recreational facilities.

Members of county's legislative delegation plan to introduce measures in January to increase oversight of the authority. The lawmakers say they want the authority to follow the same bidding and ethics rules as county agencies.

Several people advocating for changes point to frustrations over the authority's handling of a parking lot in Parkville. Board members voted this year to sell the Lavender Avenue lot to a developer, despite protests from community members who argued that small businesses needed the parking space.

"People are really wondering, what is the accountability of the Revenue Authority?" said Ruth Baisden, president of the Greater Parkville Community Council, which fought the sale. "It's a real concern. They're wheeling and dealing and selling, and this all has an impact on the community."

The authority kept the public in the dark about the issue, said Baisden, whose group recently hosted a meeting that focused on the Revenue Authority.

Revenue Authority officials said the lot was losing money, and that it's their job to keep properties profitable.

The Revenue Authority's CEO and board chairman say the organization is not a governmental agency and that they've followed all rules regarding transparency.

CEO William "Lynnie" Cook described the authority as "somewhere between a private business and a government agency." He said the organization follows laws related to open meetings and public information.

"People are going to disagree," Cook said. "That's their right to disagree. But in the end, if we are following the statutes, that's what we are supposed to do."

Board Chairman Donald Hutchinson pointed out that the revenue doesn't come from taxpayers — it comes from people who pay for parking, golf and the Reisterstown Sportsplex. The authority doesn't get direct appropriations from the county.

"That puts us in a position where we can work in a more businesslike process, rather than a governmental process," Hutchinson said.

State lawmakers created the Revenue Authority in 1955. It now has an operating budget of $11 million and manages five golf courses, the Reisterstown Sportsplex and four parking garages in Towson, and metered parking elsewhere.

The county executive appoints the board's five members, and County Council members confirm the appointments.

Under current law, the Revenue Authority "really [doesn't] have to listen to the public," said Del. Eric Bromwell.

"They don't have to listen to anyone," said Bromwell, a Democrat who wants to tighten up the rules.

Republican Del. John Cluster said he started looking into the way the Revenue Authority works after the organization went against the community's wishes and sold the Parkville lot.

"It's a county division that really I think nobody has any control over," Cluster said.

Cluster's proposals include making the authority bid out contracts over $25,000, as county agencies must. He also wants to require the authority to seek the approval of County Council members and state lawmakers when selling land.

Board member Les Pittler said that as he's studied the law over his 13 years on the board, he has come to believe the authority needs to be more accountable.

"I used to call the Revenue Authority a quasi-governmental organization," he said. "I've now dropped the 'quasi.'"

While bondholders own much of the property that the authority oversees, Pittler argues that since most of the facilities sit on land owned by the county, the authority is accountable to county taxpayers.

"We're not a private corporation," said Pittler, who contends that the authority has closed meetings unnecessarily and denied public-records requests.

Pittler also wants the organization to publish employees' salaries, as the county has done with all its workers. He plans to introduce a motion to do so at the next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 8.

The authority has about 70 full-time employees and up to 400 part-time employees when golf season is in full swing, Cook said.

County Councilman David Marks had looked into whether the Revenue Authority could be included in the county's pending ethics reform legislation, but learned that only state lawmakers have jurisdiction over the organization.

"The state legislature's really the one that needs to act," the Perry Hall Republican said.

One of Cluster's proposals is to change state law so that Revenue Authority officials would have to follow whatever ethics rules the County Council ultimately passes.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez

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