Audit Faults Agency for Building Indoor Recreation Facilities

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008

A Maryland environmental agency improperly used millions of dollars from a program dedicated to preserving and developing parkland to build indoor aquatic centers, community centers and golf clubhouses, legislative auditors have found.

The audit of the Department of Natural Resources released yesterday said the indoor recreation projects violate restrictions in state law on the permitted uses of money from Program Open Space, a popular program that has helped protect hundreds of thousands of acres from development.

"You've got open space and you're putting buildings on it," said Bruce Myers, chief of the Office of Legislative Audits, which is funded by the General Assembly. Referring to a $1.8 million Anne Arundel County aquatic center the report cited, Myers said: "An indoor pool? I don't know how that would quite fit" into an open space program.

Officials at the natural resources agency sharply disputed the audit's conclusions, calling the pools, clubhouses and community centers a legitimate use of state money that has broadened the open space program to include more Marylanders. They said hundreds of indoor recreation projects -- from nature centers to indoor tennis facilities -- have been built and renovated with state money since the legislature authorized Program Open Space in 1969.

"Frankly, we think a lot of these kinds of facilities are very important to parkgoers and recreation users around the state," said Eric Schwab, DNR's deputy secretary. "It's a long-standing practice. Our interpretation is that indoor facilities are supportive of outdoor recreation."

Some are newly built projects, and others are renovations of existing facilities, Schwab said. The Cabin John indoor tennis center and the Greenbelt aquatic fitness center recently were improved, and the Anne Arundel pool was a new project, he said.

The dispute probably will be settled by the General Assembly, which could vote to continue to include indoor projects in open space grants or eliminate them. Auditors recommended that DNR seek an opinion from the attorney general's office as to whether indoor projects fall within the program's scope.

Agency officials responded in the audit that although DNR attorneys have advised them that "there is some basis in law for the department's longstanding interpretation," they plan to seek legislation "clarifying" their position when the General Assembly convenes in January.

"There is a tension that has developed throughout the years" on how to spend the open space money, said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. "I think this is something the legislature should look at." She said she believes that under the statute, use of open space money for indoor recreation purposes is limited to renovation of existing facilities.

DNR oversees the management and use of the Chesapeake Bay and state forests, parks, fisheries and wildlife. The agency spent $494.6 million on land purchases and restoration in fiscal 2007; the open space budget for the current fiscal year is $82.2 million, officials said. The program is funded by a 0.5 percent tax on real estate transfers, with the money divided between the state and local governments across Maryland.

Besides land acquisition, the program has traditionally paid for construction or renovations to parks, woodlands, ballfields and outdoor facilities such as tennis courts. The money also has gone toward carpeting several playing fields with artificial turf, another allocation that stirred opposition from purists.

Auditors cited several other problems with financial decisions and record-keeping at DNR, some of them raised in previous reports and still unresolved. Among the other findings:

· The agency has failed to monitor some agreements to ensure that rental payments are being made for some state properties that are leased to nonprofit entities, private companies or individuals. DNR has agreed to expand its internal audits of lease agreements.

· An agency employee purchased janitorial and maintenance supplies at "excessively high" prices from vendors who charged prices above those offered by competitors. DNR has agreed to audit the purchases and take "appropriate corrective action."

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