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Foes block funding for Towson jail


After some shrewd politicking by their councilman, Towson opponents of an expanded detention center won a major victory yesterday when the Baltimore County Council voted to remove $70 million in funding for the project from next year's budget.

The vote came during adoption of the county's total $1.9 billion capital and operating budget, which includes nearly $580 million for education, $125 million for police and a $13 million property tax cut. The new budget is 0.6 percent larger than this year's and maintains nearly all of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's spending priorities.

But the 4-3 vote to cut the jail funds is a blow to Ruppersberger, who announced last summer that the Baltimore County Detention Center on Kenilworth Drive would double in size over 20 years.

If the vote had come before a redistricting plan to divide Towson into three council districts was proposed last week, it almost certainly would have failed, he said.

"It seemed they changed their positions based not on the merits but on the redistricting proposal," Ruppersberger said. "We're going to need a council with the courage to stand up and make a difficult decision if we're going to have an effective criminal justice system."

Since he announced the jail expansion, Ruppersberger has been criticized, sometimes profanely, by Towson residents angry at the lack of public input in the decision.

But after an anti-expansion referendum failed in November, opponents assumed the council wouldn't stop the project. After all, the one representative who didn't want the larger jail in his district, Republican Wayne M. Skinner of Towson, would be voted down by the six others who didn't want it moved to theirs.

That was true until last week, when five council members proposed a plan to split Towson into three council districts, one of which would include Skinner and Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat. Skinner and many Towson activists opposed the plan and still do, but yesterday it worked to their advantage.

Figuring that four current council members will have to campaign in Towson if they seek re-election in 2002, Skinner introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2002 capital budget Friday, cutting funds for the jail.

By yesterday morning, he'd gotten the support of council members Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, and T. Bryan McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican.

Minutes before the vote, Ruppersberger spoke with McIntire on the telephone and tried, without success, to get him to change his vote. When Skinner formally introduced his amendment, McIntire offered his second.

"Let us build a facility off to itself for long-term offenders and not house them in a nice neighborhood next to our premier magnet school and close to one of our finest shopping centers," McIntire said.

Kamenetz, who told The Sun in 1999 that expanding the jail in Towson "would be the most prudent" solution, followed with a speech of his own, saying that he wanted to explore the option of sending prisoners to facilities in other counties.

He added that even though residents might not like the division of Towson, the increased political support for Skinner's anti-jail position was evidence that having three representatives was better for the community.

"Pragmatically, it's the end results that count," he said.

But at that point, the final outcome remained in doubt. Not even Skinner knew how Gardina planned to vote.

As his colleagues made speeches about the jail, Gardina sat silent, staring at his hands. When the council secretary read his name for the roll call vote, he didn't look up. After two or three seconds, he mumbled "Aye."

The council chamber, packed with anti-jail activists, erupted in applause.

Cathi M. Forbes, a co-founder of the anti-jail Coalition for Open Government, said after watching the vote that she was pleased that "common sense" finally won out.

"But it's not done yet," she said.

The current jail is crowded and inadequate. As the size and effectiveness of the police force has increased over the past decade, the inmate population has more than doubled.

During a tour of the old county jail, a crumbling building built in 1956 at Bosley Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard, Ruppersberger said the first order of business will be finding an immediate solution to the crowding and poor conditions there. Doing so will pose logistical problems, cost millions of dollars and not add a single bed to the system, he said.

Permanent fixes to all of the county's troubles will come later, he said.

The executive acknowledged yesterday that he could have brought opponents into the process earlier, but he said he still believes that expanding the detention center is the best option. Not only would it be cheaper to build and operate than creating a new facility, but it would minimize the risk of transporting inmates from the jail to the district and circuit courthouses in Towson, he said.

Ruppersberger echoed Kamenetz's comments from 1999. Then the councilman said that expanding the current site "maintains the proximity to the courthouse, it doesn't allow for two separate facilities, and it avoids having to place a site in a new neighborhood that doesn't want it."

Kamenetz said he's now taking a more regional approach.

"This redistricting proposal forces council members to be less parochial and to look at issues more countywide," he said.

Other than cutting funds for the jail, the council made only small changes to the budget Ruppersberger had proposed for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. The police and education budgets remained largely intact. Funding for art and cultural institutions was untouched at $3.8 million.

The council also increased the $10.5 million property tax cut Ruppersberger proposed to about $13 million. With the increase, a homeowner with a $150,000 house will save just under $1 a week.

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