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Owens defends jail cost figures


County Executive Janet S. Owens says the county has "diligently managed" two expensive jail construction projects, denying the county auditor's contention that administration officials gave the County Council inaccurate cost figures as far back as 1996.

Owens also criticized County Auditor Teresa Sutherland, who answers to the council, for giving her analysis to the news media. Sutherland has said she did so only after The Sun requested it under the Maryland Public Information Act.

Owens' comments were contained in two memos to Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat. In both memos, dated Sept. 1, Owens says she has told her staff to stop exploring the jail cost issue because she sees "no value" in doing so.

Owens called Sutherland's analysis "groundless" and "an affront to the employees involved."

Her attempt to put the matter to rest has not satisfied some council members.

"I'm not happy with the way this has worked out," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat who voted against the 2000-2001 county budget in May, in part because she felt Owens administration officials had not been forthright.

Samorajczyk said she had "no idea" that the Jennifer Road project near Annapolis had wound up costing nearly 60 percent more than initially projected, $27 million instead of $17 million. Reasons for the ballooning cost included soil and sprinkler problems and design changes.

In her analysis, Sutherland suggested that the county obscured those increases with decreases in the cost of building the Ordnance Road jail in Glen Burnie. The two projects were treated as one budget item, and budget officials did not need council approval to switch money from one account to the other.

The council was told recently that the Jennifer Road jail expansion would require $23.5 million, but the Department of Public Works put the cost at $27 million, according to records gathered by Sutherland. The cost of the Ordnance Road jail in Glen Burnie has been reported to the council as $32.4 million, although Public Works puts it at $28.9 million.

The cost estimates are both off by $3.5 million, so the combined cost of the projects, $55.9 million, equals the amount the administration has reported to the council recently.

Owens defended her staff's management of the two projects, which began before she was elected in 1998. Along with her memos, she sent the council a thick set of exhibits compiled by the Office of the Budget to bolster her argument.

"From the onset of this capital project," Owens wrote, "the Administration has diligently managed construction of the Ordnance Road facility and the renovation of the Jennifer Road facility within the appropriation authority approved by the County Council."

When additional money was needed, Owens wrote, county officials provided the council with the necessary "testimony and documentation." Owens was out of the country yesterday and unavailable for comment.

In criticizing Sutherland, Owens said the auditor should have sent a copy of her analysis to the budget office. "I do believe we do a disservice to the public if there is a race to the press before the Administration has the opportunity to review a report or an analysis," the county executive wrote.

Sutherland could not be reached for comment yesterday, but in a memo written Sept. 5, she said she does not typically give the administration draft copies of her responses to inquiries by council members, which this was. And she said she gave Owens' office a copy as soon as she carried out The Sun's public records request.

Of the administration's defense, Sutherland wrote that "the numbers speak for themselves." She repeated her claim that testimony and documentation provided by the county was not consistent with cost estimates provided by county engineer Ron Bowen.

Samorajczyk said budget officials should provide more information about capital projects so that council members and Sutherland can ask relevant questions.

"I didn't know enough to ask questions that would have provided information that was beneficial to the council as a whole," Samorajczyk said. "Neither did anyone else, including the auditor."

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