Towson jail plan is show of power


Last week's abrupt announcement of a plan to more than double the size of the main jail in Towson to 1,737 inmate beds illustrates the expansive power wielded by Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

For years, officials have known that the jails scattered across the county seat were either dangerously overcrowded or functionally obsolete. Some inmates were squeezed three to a cell. Others contended with balky heating and lack of air conditioning.

And for years, leaders have avoided the thorny question of where a new jail would be built, focusing instead on more popular priorities such as new schools and roads.

But Ruppersberger, in trademark fashion, might have hit on a solution that relied on behind-the-scenes planning and compromise, and neutralized the opposition before it could gain its footing.

"Somebody has to make decisions. That's my job," Ruppersberger said in an interview this week.

"This is an issue that I was not going to walk away from, and I could have. It's not my style. You need a president of the corporation. I am the president of the corporation."

How the jail decision was made offers a glimpse of Ruppersberger's management style and shows how the county government structure concentrates power in the hands of the executive.

It also demonstrates how Ruppersberger, a former prosecutor and county councilman, has mastered the use of that authority during his five-plus years in office.

Five years ago, officials spent $150,000 on a study that concluded that Baltimore County would need 2,390 jail beds within the next two decades. A new jail would consume 50 acres and cost $77 million.

Some speculated that vacant industrial land on the county's east side would be the best site.

Ruppersberger, then a rookie executive, decided not to pursue the project. Money would be better spent on long-neglected schools, he said at the time. A side benefit of waiting: No neighborhoods would be angered when asked to accept a new jail.

But last fall, with the county's classroom construction program well under way and jails increasingly crowded, Ruppersberger revisited the issue. In September, he asked for another study.

The council approved spending $121,000 to hire Carter Goble Associates Inc., a South Carolina consulting firm, to re-examine projected inmate growth.

That would be the first step, county councilmen were told, and would take about four months. Step two: Use the information to pick a location for the jail.

Eight months later, on May 10, council members were reviewing this year's corrections department budget. They asked how the study was going.

It was almost ready, said county finance chief Fred Homan. Again, he assured them that the study would not choose a location.

But it is now clear that along the way, Ruppersberger combined steps one and two - well before the May budget meeting.

When the Carter Goble report was released last week, it was dated May 1, nine days before the budget discussion.

Not only did it predict how many jail beds the county would need in 20 years, it recommended a $75 million expansion of the Baltimore County Detention Center on Kenilworth Drive.

No alternative sites were addressed. The county already owns the land, and voters will be asked in November to approve borrowing money for construction. Such bond questions almost never fail.

While the County Council must approve design and construction contracts, that's likely to be a formality. For the most part, the issue had been decided.

"I guess that was part of the guiding hand in the executive's office," said Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder. "It's an executive-driven government in the county, so it's the executive's prerogative."

Even though they were not told the process had been altered, Bartenfelder and the rest of the council aren't complaining.

"The other councilmen are probably breathing a sigh of relief because it's not in their district," said Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Republican who represents Towson.

Skinner said he raised jail issues with Ruppersberger's staff at least twice within the past 10 months. He urged them to consider parking concerns and build a larger lobby so visitors would not loiter outside.

Within the past month, he said, he was told that administration officials were leaning toward a Towson expansion. Skinner won't fight the proposal.

"I don't have the votes," he said. "If I try any kind of measure to fight it, it is going to be six to one" on the council.

The administration's maneuverings don't sit well with some in the Kenilworth Drive neighborhood. They wonder why they weren't told earlier that a major expansion was being considered.

"A lot about the process is mysterious," said Nicole Risser, 35, a Towson University history professor who lives on Morningside Drive.

"The ideal process would have been to announce early on that the county was considering the expansion. At that point, residents would have been able to articulate their concerns."

Ruppersberger said the public will have its say in the November bond vote, and the expanded jail will include underground parking and a larger lobby.

"The community will be better off," Ruppersberger said. "We think it will have less impact."

The decision was driven by revised growth projections that revealed a need for fewer beds than the 1995 study, the executive said. When his staff saw the numbers, they directed the consultant to examine whether the Towson site had enough space. It did.

Robert J. Barrett, Ruppersberger's key adviser on land decisions, now says that "finding a solution" was always part of the consultant's job. "It does make sense," he said of the recommendation.

By building in Towson, the county consolidates its corrections programs and minimizes transport time for inmates awaiting trial at nearby courts.

Ruppersberger never ordered the consultant to make the Towson site work, Barrett said: "He didn't say, 'Here's where I want it.' He said, 'We've got a problem, and we have to take care of it.'"

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