Harford councilman challenges awarding of county tourism grants

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Harford County Councilman Mike Perrone took issue this week with how the county government distributes its tourism grants to local organizations, highlighting how two of the largest grants going to 28 entities in fiscal 2019 will benefit organizations headed by County Council members.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman’s administration announced May 24 that more than $1.5 million — revenue generated by the county’s 6 percent lodging room tax established in 2015 — will be awarded to local tourism-related nonprofit organizations in the 2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The largest award, $595,000, went to Visit Harford! Inc., the quasi-public entity established under the Glassman administration to promote tourism countywide.

Perrone, in his remarks delivered during Tuesday’s council legislative session, focused on the other 27 individual organizations. He noted the next two largest grants, after Visit Harford!, went to the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum and the Liriodendron Foundation.

Councilman Patrick Vincenti is president of the Decoy Museum board. That organization was awarded an $80,000 grant for operations and marketing, according to the county’s press release.

Councilman James McMahan is president of The Liriodendron Foundation Inc., which manages the historic Liriodendron Mansion, the Bel Air summer home of Dr. Howard Kelly, one of four physicians who founded Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the late 1800s. The county awarded a $70,000 grant to the foundation for operations and outreach, according to the release.

McMahan and Vincenti, both Republicans, are candidates for state delegate and County Council president, respectively. Perrone, who is also a Republican, is running for county executive, challenging Glassman, who got the 6 percent lodging tax approved and set up the grant award system to local nonprofits.

The next two largest grants, worth $55,000 each, will go to the Susquehannock Wildlife Society Inc. for its operations and to The Trustees of The Ladew Topiary Gardens Inc., for operations and outreach, according to the county press release.

The Susquehannock society is a wildlife conservation organization that is developing a wildlife center on the 20-acre Hopkins Branch Wildlife Management Area in Darlington, according to its website.

The Ladew trustees are the governing body for the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton.

“You can see that the number one and number two spots are pretty far ahead of number three and the rest of the pack,” Perrone said.

The councilman said the Glassman administration has emphasized the awards process is competitive — organizations must apply for the grants through a process overseen by the county’s Office of Community & Economic Development. The Tourism Advisory Review Committee looks over all applications and makes its recommendations for awards to the county executive.

“Recommendations are made to serve the greatest number of recipients while focusing on organizational accountability and sustainability,” according to a recent county administration news release.

Regardless, the final decision on how much money is given and and two what organization ultimately rests with the county executive, his administration has conceded.

Perrone questioned how competitive the program can be, though, “when the top two award recipients have County Council members presiding over their boards.”

He said he does not think either of his colleagues “were in on these award decisions,” having served on the council and worked with the administration for 3 ½ years, which gives him “a pretty good idea as to how everyone operates.”

“My gut tells me that the administration did this without council input, in much the same way as the administration does a lot of what they do — without council input,” Perrone said.

He said he is not suggesting that the Decoy Museum or Liriodendron Foundation are not worthy of the grants and he expressed appreciation to McMahan for talking with him Tuesday afternoon about how the foundation got to its present state.

“Relative to the other 25 award recipients, having two nonprofits affiliated with two county councilmen at the top of the list doesn’t seem right,” Perrone said.

Perrone also called out how the grants were awarded geographically — the majority are in the Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace areas, with others in the northern or western parts of the county.

He said 52 percent of Harford’s hotel rooms are in Joppa, Edgewood and Belcamp, yet no grants were awarded to organizations in the southern part of the county.

Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the county government, stated in an email Thursday: “Funding recommendations follow our publicized process and criteria, and are based on the need and qualifications of the nonprofits that apply” in an email Thursday.

“For example, there were no applicants this year in District A, so there were no funding awards in that area,” she continued. “However, Visit Harford receives the most funding by far, and it promotes tourism-related activities in all areas of the county.”

Additional revenue from the hotel tax goes directly to Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace, according to Mumby. The Town of Bel Air does not have any hotels in its limits.

Perrone also called out the county for not fixing one of three piers in the boat launch at Flying Point Park in Edgewood in time for the start of the international Bassmaster Elite Series fishing tournament in late July. The televised tournament is scheduled to start with the boat launch at Flying Point Park.

The other two piers have been repaired in prior years, and repairs to the third are in Glassman’s capital budget for fiscal 2019, but they are not expected to be done in time for the tournament, according to Perrone.

He noted the fishing tournament has a tourism connection and there is “money available to do the work” in the park.

“When the planned location for the Bassmaster launch became unavailable unexpectedly, we were pleased to have Flying Point Park in Edgewood fill in to help this exciting event move forward.,” Mumby stated. “The boat launch has already been replaced, and we are planning to upgrade the remaining pier in the fiscal year that begins in July, although there is not enough time for this project to be completed before the tournament later that month.”

Flying Point Park became available in early January, shortly after the Havre de Grace City Council declined to vote on an application from Visit Harford! to use the city’s Yacht Basin for the tournament launch. City leaders were concerned about how the tournament would affect boat slip owners.

“It is somewhat surprising that Councilman Perrone is interested this revenue since, if it were up to him, there would be no funding for anyone because he voted against it,” Mumby wrote.

Perrone voted against the hotel tax legislation when it was before the County Council in January 2015 because of concerns about growing the size of local government and the potential financial burden on low-income residents who live in hotels.

He also was the only council member who supported an amendment by Councilman Chad Shrodes to divert 25 percent of revenue to the county general fund to help repair roads or give county employees a raise. The rest of the council voted against the amendment.

“The tourism award program and the hotel tax that fund it seem to be a little light on the tourism and a little heavy on the favoritism,” Perrone said Tuesday.

His comments took some of his council colleagues by surprise, although no one, other than McMahan, commented during his turn to make general remarks.

“I am sure my colleague, the honorable Mr. Perrone, did not intend in any way or shape or form to impugn mine or Mr. Vincenti’s integrity, because if that was the case that would be a big mistake,” McMahan said.

Vincenti said later that he has been involved with the Decoy Museum since it opened in 1986, and he is the fifth board president in the past 32 years. Vincenti is a decoy maker himself, and he and his wife, Jeannie, operate the Vincenti Decoys retail store in Havre de Grace, according to the business’ website.

“I’m extremely proud to be affiliated with the Decoy Museum and all that it does,” he said.

Vincenti said the hotel tax has been “extremely beneficial” to Harford County and the local economy in the three-plus years the county has collected it.

“I think all of the museums in the county provide a very important role,” he said. “They tell the county’s story; they preserve and present our local heritage and history for others to see and learn about.”


UPDATES:

This story has been updated to include comments from the county administration about the tourism grant process, and the status of repairs to the Flying Point Park boat launch.

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