A single sheet of fine print in the massive new plan for government construction in Montgomery County has sparked the latest political squabble between County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and members of the County Council.
In recommending a $1 billion program of capital improvements, Gilchrist deleted nearly $500,000yesterday that had been earmarked for a major renovation of a little-used auditorium in the council office complex in Rockville.
Gilchrist, whose staff simultaneously suspended the bidding on the renovation project, said he deleted the funding because "it's not peanuts."
"The project ought to be deferred at the very least . . . and money spent on more pressing items" such as new roads and schools, the centerpieces of his six-year plan, Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist's plan had barely been completed when then-council President Esther P. Gelman complained about the impending cut, county officials said.
In a private meeting last month with county Economic Development Director Ioanna T. Morfessis and James M. Kurtz, who oversees a government biotechnology research center in Gaithersburg, Gelman asked why Gilchrist would earmark $9.1 million for the center and delete funds for the auditorium renovation.
"It's not nice to be told, 'Do this, do that,' " Gelman said yesterday. "I wanted to know where they were going to get the money for the research center when they're cutting all these little half-million dollar things?"
Senior members of Gilchrist's staff said they regarded Gelman's statement as a thinly veiled threat to trim funding for the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology (CARB) if money for the auditorium renovation was not included in the construction plan. CARB is a key component of Montgomery's efforts to lure research firms to the I-270 corridor.
"The exact words weren't there, but the implication was clear: Fund the renovation or CARB may not get fully funded," said one member of Gilchrist's staff. "But since the issues don't even balance, there's only a small chance of that happening."
The council still has $450,000 left over from its 1984 budget to start the renovation, which would include a $50,000 audio-visual system, a new $17,438 bathroom, $11,000 in acoustical wall panels and a $900 table for use by reporters. Council members approved the renovation by a 5-1 vote last August, saying they wanted to spruce up the 18-year-old auditorium.
The project is now in limbo because bidding on it was suspended.
Gilchrist said he was uncertain whether he would veto the renovation funding if council members vote to reinsert it during forthcoming budget debates.