Longtime adviser to Schaefer on finance matters

The Baltimore Sun

Charles L. Benton Jr., a close aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer whose financial acumen helped make Baltimore's revival possible, died of pneumonia yesterday at Union Memorial Hospital. The longtime city resident was 91.

Mr. Benton oversaw Baltimore's finances for 30 years - first as budget director and then as head of the city finance department - but his influence at City Hall, and later at the State House, extended far beyond balancing the books.

Mr. Schaefer, who was on a first-name basis with all of his chief deputies, regularly referred to his budget adviser as "Mr. Benton" - a mark of their mutual respect.

"He bordered on genius," Mr. Schaefer said last night of the longtime city aide who became state budget chief in 1987 when Mr. Schaefer was elected governor. "He was one of the smartest men I ever knew, and one of the nicest men I ever knew. I don't know what I would have done without Mr. Benton."

An eccentric man who often eschewed fashion - many of his former colleagues fondly remember his broad ties, polyester pants and socks with red lettering that read "I Love Dad" - he was also deeply religious and dedicated long hours to finding ways to fund Mr. Schaefer's programs.

"Mr. Benton was mayor and then Governor Schaefer's right-arm man when it came to the budget and financing all of the mayor's and governor's ambitious initiatives, which propelled the city and the state forward," said Mark L. Wasserman, another longtime Schaefer adviser.

Charles Lee Benton Jr. was born May 20, 1916, in East Baltimore. He attended city schools and played in Patterson Park until his family moved to Linthicum Heights when he was 9.

He graduated from Glen Burnie High School and received a bachelor's degree in business administration and accounting from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1938. He worked briefly for the state but returned to the university to study for a master's degree in economics, which he received in 1940.

In 1956 - after serving as a professor of accounting and a comptroller at the university - he took a civil service test for the position of budget director of Baltimore and finished first. The budget director's job involved working for the city comptroller, preparing the first draft of the annual budget and keeping the books.

But Mr. Benton's power grew with the rise of William Donald Schaefer. In 1976, Mr. Benton became trustee of the controversial $200 million bank that offered developers speed and flexibility in building some of Baltimore's most important projects - including the conversion of several vacant downtown buildings into loft apartments.

The bank played a critical role in the city's renaissance, but critics argued that the bank constituted a "shadow government," because it circumvented city regulations and public-records laws in the process.

Mr. Benton "saw opportunities for using the tax code to create money, to get money on the table, to get deals to work, to make the numbers work," said C. Fraser Smith, who covered the quasi-public bank for The Sun. "Without it, they probably wouldn't have been able to make it happen."

The development bank was dissolved in 1986, when Mr. Schaefer was preparing to run for governor. Mr. Benton (in whose honor the city office building at 417 E. Fayette St. was named) left the finance post that same year, when he had reached the city's mandatory retirement age of 70. The next year, Mr. Schaefer asked him to become Maryland's budget chief, a position he held until 1994.

In 1945, Mr. Benton married Hazel Saylors, and the couple lived in Baltimore until 1951, when they moved to College Heights Estates in Hyattsville, near the University of Maryland. Mrs. Benton died in 1988 after a long illness, and Mr. Benton later moved to Harborview near Federal Hill.

Despite the long hours he put into his job, one of his two sons, Charles V. Benton of Hagerstown, remembers a dedicated father who made time to attend Little League games and other events in his children's lives. "He had this favorite whistle he would whistle to let me know he was there," Mr. Benton said of his father. "One time he showed up [at a Little League game] and I was excited to see him ... and he whistled, I looked over, and the ball hit me on my head."

Lainy LeBow-Sachs, another former Schaefer aide, remembered Mr. Benton's dedication to his wife when she became ill - and also the drive he exhibited at City Hall and later in state government. "Without him I don't know what the city would have done all those years," she said. "Whatever the needs were for the people in the community or for the city, he was able to figure it out, turn the numbers around and figure out how to do it."

Harry Deitchman, who spent 44 years in the city's payroll department and who was a friend of Mr. Benton's, remembers him as someone who seemed able to solve any problem. Mr. Benton even climbed out onto a City Hall ledge one night and came back in through a window to unlock a door when then-Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. had locked himself out of his office, Mr. Deitchman said. "He was my boss. He was my mentor. He was a good, good friend," Mr. Deitchman said of Mr. Benton.

George A. Piendak, who served five years as Baltimore's budget director when Mr. Benton led the finance department, recalled him as a financial wizard, a tireless worker and a demanding but rewarding boss.

"He had a steel-trap mind and the ability to quote occasionally, word for word, from something he'd said or written 15 or 20 years ago, and if you challenged him, he'd prove it to you," Mr. Piendak said. "And even though he conveyed the impression of being a stern taskmaster, he cared about people - about the family life of the people who worked for him - and he cared about the poor."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch noted that Mr. Benton helped steer the state through the recession of the early 1990s and other budget woes of the time. "He was very well respected and understood very well the budgetary process both at the local level and at the state level," Mr. Busch said.

Colleagues said Mr. Benton also licked a difficult drinking problem. The finance director once described himself as "on the verge of becoming an alcoholic" when he poured all his liquor down the drain and decided to devote his life to God - even if it conflicted with his work.

"When I was lobbying for the city one session," Mr. Piendak said, "we were trying to get some legislation through for the promotion and tourism people to allow certain bars to stay open till 4 a.m. Now Mr. Benton was very passionate about his religion at that point - and took the opposite tack. So there I was, down in Annapolis doing the city's work, and my boss was down there doing what he interpreted as God's work."

The city lost that fight, Mr. Piendak recalled.

Funeral details were incomplete last night.

In addition to his son, Mr. Benton is survived by two other children, Douglas L. Benton of Gaithersburg and Brenda L. Benton of Baltimore; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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