When the Howard County Recreation and Parks Department was searching this year for a place to run its summer horseback riding camp, officials looked for an established stable with high-quality instruction and top-notch facilities.
They found it -- in Baltimore County.
The decision to award an eight-week contract worth nearly $14,000 to an equestrian center outside Howard has raised questions about how such contracts are awarded -- without bids -- and prompted a County Council member to ask whether government should be funding such a program at all.
Councilman Allan H. Kittleman says he's sympathetic to the concerns of private business owners like Darrell E. Putman, who runs the Sundance Equestrian Center in Woodbine.
Putman wrote Kittleman: "My competitor for the Summer Riding Camp business is the same people who collect my property tax, Howard County. I'm helping to fund the competition. I can't compete.
"We're using taxpayer dollars to fund a program and going outside the county to pay the contractor. If this were some extremely unique endeavor where a contractor was hard to find, well then yes, go outside the county. But there are more than 40 riding and boarding stables in Howard County."
Kittleman introduced an amendment to the General Plan guidelines at a council work session this week that would order an evaluation of how the county's recreation services affect local business and whether government should provide services that compete with the private sector.
"I think [Putman's] concern is valid about the county competing against him," Kittleman said, adding: "What else does the county do that maybe we should have private people do, that maybe we shouldn't get involved in? It's just the whole idea of should we be in the business of competing with private companies?"
Kittleman said he intends to request a meeting with the recreation director, Gary J. Arthur, and possibly County Executive James N. Robey to discuss the issue.
A new publicly owned golf course proposed for a site in West Friendship drew criticism in July from Kittleman and private golf course operators, who say the competition will drive them out of business. Similarly, horse farm owners in Howard fought a plan by the county two years ago to spend $400,000 for an equestrian center. The County Council ended up shifting those funds to the school budget instead.
Arthur defended the decision to give the summer riding contract to Patapsco Horse Center in Catonsville. He said that, when seeking "performance" services from an outside contractor, his department is exempt from the competitive bidding process.
Too much paperwork
"We run over 2,000 programs on an annual basis and probably 35 percent of them are contractual," said Arthur. "That would mean a lot of additional paperwork."
He said Patapsco was chosen to run the riding camp -- primarily with its in-house staff -- after a facility in Howard County declined.
"We thought these people that we contracted with [at Patapsco] are known providers of quality recreational services and that was No. 1," Arthur said.
Of the two Howard County facilities that have run the camp in previous years, one, Maple Spring Farm in Glenwood, was not able to handle the therapeutic riding program for the disabled, Arthur said. The other, Putman's Sundance, which had the contract in the summer of 1998, declined to renew it, Arthur said.
Putman, however, said he was not offered the chance to renew his contract. Apparently the only horse farm owner to complain publicly, Putman said he wasted $500 advertising for summer camps of his own, all but one of which he had to cancel because of lack of registration. Only eight children signed up.
"Why am I paying taxes to people who are competing against me?" Putman said in an interview. "What business is Howard County in? This is crazy."
In looking for a stable to operate the riding program, which ran five hours a day five days a week, Janell Coffman, sports director for Recreation and Parks, said she researched the area for an "established" facility.
"You don't want to go new because you've got to take risk management into consideration," she said.
Patapsco Horse Center was "convenient," she said, to the Ellicott City, Elkridge and north Columbia areas, where she had a concentration of program registrants in previous years.
About 75 children participated in this year's camp, Coffman said. Registration for one week cost $250, of which $185 went to Patapsco and $65 to the county.
"I was very happy with their services," said Coffman of the Catonsville center, "so I would be willing to offer them to continue with us if they were willing."
Not first time
Recreation and Parks has contracted with vendors outside the county before. The Diamond Ridge Golf Course in Woodlawn has held golf camps when local facilities couldn't take any more participants, Arthur said.
Since July, when he first wrote to Kittleman, Putman says he has gotten virtually nowhere. He said he was told there would be a meeting with Arthur about how the summer riding program was conducted, but no such meeting has been scheduled.
"I want the answers," he said.
Putman's goal is not to have his barn -- or any barn in Howard County -- run the riding camps exclusively.
"Let's go ahead and have a half-dozen farms involved and rotate it around," he said. "I don't need to do it every week.
"But this exclusivity thing, not even bidding [the contract], letting no one else know it's going to be happening, and then taking it out of the county -- everything about it stinks."