Gov. Larry Hogan's photo-op-heavy foray into Baltimore County today stands in stark contrast to his ongoing feud with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, which has entered (and perhaps denied) yet another arena. An indoor equestrian facility long planned for the Center for Maryland Agriculture and Farm Park in Hunt Valley was put on hold last week by the Board of Public Works despite a favorable recommendation from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
By withholding $2.3 million in Program Open Space funding from the state, Governor Hogan and his reliable co-conspirator whenever the board goes rogue, Comptroller Peter Franchot, have not only hurt those who stand to benefit most from the project — primarily recreational riders, including one group, the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation, that planned to use it to help veterans deal with post traumatic stress and depression — but also Maryland's $1.5 billion horse industry for which Baltimore County is generally regarded as the unofficial capital.
Why the fuss? Despite some red herrings offered by the usual Kamenetz opponents like state Sen. Johnny Salling, who issued a statement ridiculing the project as a "fancy horse center," it's clear that the decision had nothing to do with the merits of the project. Rather, it was taken hostage in an attempt to thwart the county's executive's plans to sell the North Point Government Center, a run-down former high school, in Dundalk. But don't take our word for it, the board buddies announced the curious link during last week's meeting.
Actually, it's something of a double-hostage situation because the board has already blocked North Point outright. Because of a technicality buried in state law, the BPW has authority to prevent the sale because state bonds (long since repaid) were once used to help finance the original school. Yet the board has never actually put the sale of North Point on the agenda — a sore point with the Kamenetz administration which would like to make its case in an open meeting.
And while the project has produced its share of detractors, it also had the backing of a state agency (in this case, the Interagency Committee on School Construction), as well as the Baltimore County Council. Even most Republican elected officials from the Dundalk area don't seem particularly bothered by the North Point plan, which would allow the developer to create a shopping center, the Merritt Pavilion, in return for financing a new gym and theater and upgrading existing athletic fields. It's a win-win situation and far cheaper than renovating the school, not only promoting development in economically-challenged Dundalk but saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
Yet Messrs. Hogan and Franchot have instead left that project in limbo. They've similarly vowed to hold up $10 million in school construction money for Baltimore County unless funds are sunk into temporary window air conditioners for schools. Students, Dundalk residents, horse enthusiasts — the list of the governor's Baltimore County victims is growing and can't be offset by his handing out trophies at Boordy Vineyards. And for what? Are the governor and comptroller worried that Mr. Kamenetz could beat one of them in 2018?
Enough is enough. Baltimore County residents don't deserve two more years of petty dictates from a board that's supposed to be overseeing state government contracts, not dispensing political paybacks. If members of the Board of Public Works object to an equestrian center or a North Point recreation complex, let the projects be debated with public input and then voted up or down. Denying average, ordinary Marylanders like the veterans served by Saratoga WarHorse access to worthwhile public facilities over a political spat crosses a line.
In the 46-year history of Program Open Space, which is aimed exclusively at financing local parks, open spaces and conservation, no Baltimore County request has ever been turned down, no matter the party affiliation of the governor or county executive. Mr. Hogan has thus set a troubling precedent that strongly suggests the kind of small-minded politics voters profess to hate has sunk its barbs into Maryland like a horse tick.