HotSpots program targeted for cuts


With a Republican administration firmly in control in Annapolis, a favored anti-crime program of former Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is threatened with extinction, and the embattled agency that oversees it could eventually be gutted.

In a budget-balancing move, General Assembly analysts have recommended that state funds for the HotSpot Communities Program be cut in half next year.

Federal money for the program -- which coordinates police, social workers, drug treatment and other resources in designated high-crime areas -- is no longer available.

So if the analysts' recommendation is adopted, HotSpots would essentially cease to exist. That's because money for the initiative, which operates in 62 locations in every jurisdiction in the state, would plunge from $8.8 million to $1.5 million.

"We wouldn't be able to do it," said Gregory Leyko, the acting executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, after a budget hearing yesterday before a Senate subcommittee.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has long criticized the program and the crime office, which was overseen by Townsend and was a frequent campaign topic.

Federal investigators have been probing for months whether the office improperly spent grant money to hire workers whose main responsibility was to further Townsend's political career. Townsend dismissed the probe as "political garbage." After months of post-election inactivity, a new subpoena was issued last week. Days later, seven members of the office were fired, including Executive Director Stephen P. Amos

"HotSpots is a flawed program. It got very politicized," Ehrlich said yesterday. "We haven't decided what the office will look like."

Budget analysts have trained their sights on the crime office itself, not just HotSpots.

"GOCCP might be characterized as an unwieldy octopus with its tentacles into everything," wrote analyst James L. Stoops in a review of the agency, adding, "It might be tempting to simply abolish the agency and start over."

At yesterday's hearing, Stoops and senators questioned whether the office was needed in light of a proposal by Ehrlich to establish a new grants clearinghouse that would concentrate on maximizing federal funds.

"Clearly, you don't need 34 people if all you are going to be doing is administering grants," Stoops said.

Sen. James E. DeGrange of Anne Arundel County, chairman of the budget subcommittee for public safety, hinted that the crime office would lose staff.

"There's another office being created that also does grants," DeGrange said. "We're going to be looking to consolidate, not at creating the same type of positions."

Leyko said his office serves a critical coordinating role for police and other agencies that participate in HotSpots, and it would be a mistake to think all it does is distribute grants.

HotSpots supporters pleaded for the funding to stay.

"There's got to be a way to fund this excellent program for the future of our kids," said James D. Gaston III, lead coordinator for the New Carrollton HotSpot.

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