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No cost too great if state $$ at stake


IF THERE'S STATE or federal money to be had, Carroll County Commissioner Donald Dell is always ready to jump through hoops to get it, protecting the interests of Carroll County taxpayers.

You recall in 1996 when the federal government offered a $121,000 grant for a park in Westminster, and the state authorized another $141,000. The county had to come up with $20,000 as its share.

What did Commissioner Dell do? He voted to reject the grants and the project because, he claimed, it would require raising the county's property tax rate.

A month later, parsimonious Mr. Dell voted to jack up that rate by 27 cents anyway, gleefully assuring that $2.8 million of the extra tax funds was targeted for the pockets of his fellow farmers.

In 1998, the frugal Mr. Dell scorned a continuing state grant of $26,000 to pay for a county historical planner, because the county would have had to put up about $13,000 cash as its match for the position.

If the county has to pay someone to prepare and implement a historical plan (as all neighboring counties do) it means that individual citizens wouldn't make the effort to care about their history, he explained. Sort of like hiring police is a bad idea because it makes private citizens unconcerned about law enforcement.

Now there's $1 million in state open space grants that the county stands to lose because the commissioners dawdle over adopting a new land-use Master Plan which has been in the works for over four years.

Mr. Dell voted to shelve the proposed new plan in 1998, in his previous term as commissioner. In nearly two years of his current term, he has done all he could to prevent its adoption, recently calling for wholesale rewriting of the proposed document.

And that's in spite of a letter written in April to the county by the state agency warning that the state funds for parks and recreation would be lost if the master plan was not updated by June 30.("What difference does it make if we use an old master plan or the new one?" Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier asked disingenuously. Mr. Dell appeared equally unmoved.)

Then there's the Union Bridge rail-highway bypass designed to serve the Lehigh Portland Cement Co. plant, a one-mile project that has been on the county planning board for at least five years.

The state announced a year ago that it would donate $3.5 million. When staff negotiations to buy about 26 acres of farmland for the route stalled, Mr. Dell quickly sprang into action. He personally bargained for a $850,000 deal - six times the amount of two independent appraisals of the land.

But, Mr. Dell boasted, his selfless intervention preserved the $3.5 million in state funds and bolstered economic development in Western Carroll.

Plus, the county saved nearly half the $1.5 million it had budgeted for the project, the commissioner calculated.

Not only that, the centurion of public thrift declared, but he had compassionately soothed the wounds of heartbroken family farmers by this fair deal

The owners had asked for $1 million for their inconvenience, Mr. Dell said. Instead of questioning the basis of their demand, the commissioner resorted to his canny haggling skills to secure the public bargain.

Thank goodness for his swift intervention. Without it, that state money would surely have been lost. Because it's unheard of for any transportation project in Maryland to suffer the slightest delay, for any highway budget allocation to ever be rolled over into the next year. Just look, as I'm sure Mr. Dell did, at the nonstop progress and funding of the Hampstead bypass.

To have taken the farmland by condemnation for the public benefit? Unspeakable delay and ungodly lawyer fees, Mr. Dell explained. And no court would possibly accept professional appraisals of a paltry $125,000 for this unique cattle pasture, he added.

How about exercising an existing railroad right-of-way on the land, as an alternative route or as leverage in the negotiations? Unthinkable assault on the hallowed rights of dairy farmers, dairy farmer Dell bristled.

Why not buy some adjacent land to lessen the impact on the farm? Lehigh Portland (whose $260 million expansion will double the size of the 90-year-old plant without adding any jobs) had to do that as part of the deal, in addition to the county purchase. The firm also gave the farmers rent-free use of 149 acres of Lehigh land. And the Maryland Midland Railway, of which Lehigh is part owner, gave them $50,000 in stock.

Still, what about the immeasurable disruption to the homestead of these family farmers?

Well, the public record says the Lease brothers bought the 221 acres in 1987 - for $350,000.

The rail line serving Lehigh had been in regular use beside the parcel for many years. Part of that land was already zoned industrial, which meant that it wasn't confined to farming forever, even though no industry had expressed any interest in the land.

For the county to have purchased the whole spread, cows and barns and all, at fair market value would have cost less than $1 million, realty people say. And, to listen to the plaints of Mr. Dell, there's no future in farming.

Still, state transportation money has been saved for Carroll by Mr. Dell's extraordinary efforts. Aw shucks, folks, that's something he does all the time.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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