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Executive defends figures on Arundel jail projects

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

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