Council's politics become partisan at budget time


The County Council spent most of its capital budget work session last week quibbling about small projects.

Most of the time, council members talk about how they represent the whole county. Residents complain and council members listen. But at budget time, they make no attempt to hide their partisanship.

The flash point Thursday night was sidewalks.

Many people who live on streets without sidewalks say they don't want them. Not only will it mean keeping sidewalks clear of snow in winter, but many homeowners have planted trees and shrubs in the sidewalk right-of-way.

The county, on the other hand, sees sidewalks as a way of saving money on school bus costs by providing a safe walking route for schoolchildren.

Included in last year's budget was $37,000 that would have provided sidewalks along 2,000 feet of Northfield Road, from Dunloggin Middle and Northfield Elementary schools to Columbia Road.

Although the council approved the project in theory last year, it delayed funding until fiscal year 1993, which begins July 1. However, when County Executive Charles I. Ecker presented his capital budget proposal to the council on April 1, the project was missing. It had been withdrawn at the request of Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd. The project is in Drown's district.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-2nd, objected, saying he thought it was inappropriate for one council member to unilaterally veto what the council had approved.

"Am I now to conclude that the walking area [from Columbia Road to the schools] is safe?" Gray asked Public Works Department Director James M. Irvin.

"We cannot get a community consensus" about the need for the sidewalks, Irvin said. "Some people were very vocal for it and some were very vocal against it. Since this is a community improvement, we did not feel we could go forward. There are problems walking. The right-of-way is safe for the motoring public."

Said Drown, "I basically forced the issue on this. I took it out -- I asked the executive to take it out. There are about 30 homes there and only seven kids. I don't want to put those people through that hassle every year. I asked Dr. Ecker to take it out and he acceded to my wishes."

Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, was next. He said he asked Ecker to delete "a controversial [sidewalk] project on Donleigh and Seneca drives" after polling people in the neighborhood.

Sixty percent responded, he said, and 80 percent of those were against sidewalks. Like the Northfield Road projects, the Donleigh and Seneca sidewalks were approved but not funded by the council last year. Funding of $300,000 was to come in fiscal 1993.

Like Gray, Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, complained about what she called subrosa negotiations with the executive -- one council member making a decision contrary to what other council members had agreed to.

"It's a very expensive project -- $300,000," Farragut told Pendergrass.

"Three million [dollars] if kids get run over," Pendergrass said. As with the Northfield project, the rationale for the Donleigh and Seneca sidewalks was to provide a safer walking route to school for students.

Although Seneca Drive and Donleigh Drive are in Farragut's district now, the neighborhood will be represented by Pendergrass if the council redistricting approved last December is upheld by the courts.

Pendergrass also asked that a storm drain project in her district be moved up to fiscal 1994 instead of fiscal 1995 as planned now. Irvin said he would ask Ecker to consider it. The council cannot add projects or money to the capital budget, except for education projects. With education, it can only add what the executive cut from the Board of Education request.

After dealing with parochial matters, the council tentatively approved $21.4 million in public works projects for fiscal 1993, including $206,000 for sidewalk and curb repair. The council had earlier agreed to tentatively approve another $52.7 million. The final vote will come May 21.

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