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Earmark for city difficult to trace

March 23, 2009|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN -- Following the money, or at least what it's to be used for, wasn't easy when it came to tracking down a $95,000 federal earmark.

What began as a simple telephone call on March 12 to get details about a $95,000 federal earmark for the City of Hagerstown turned into a multiday quest. One of the calls on March 12 was to the office of U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who applied for the money through the $410 billion federal Omnibus Bill.

The Omnibus Bill, which is separate from the stimulus package, was passed by Congress earlier this month and contains federal earmarks to help local governments across the country pay for a variety of projects that include everything from traffic studies to major construction projects.

Most of the projects in the Omnibus Bill for which Hagerstown was to receive money seemed to be marked clearly -- $300,000 for drinking water system improvements, $380,000 for the widening of Eastern Boulevard and grade separation from Md. 64 to Antietam Drive, and $100,000 to explore the creation of a minority and women-owned business program.

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But when asked for the specifics of how $95,000 would be used for what the bill listed as the Hagerstown Area Northeast bypass project, Bartlett spokeswoman Lisa Wright said she couldn't provide details.

She said she thought the money would be used to connect Interstate 70 to Interstate 81 via a route that would run northeast of the city.

Wright said that although Bartlett voted against the Omnibus Bill because "he believes the government is spending too much," he asked that earmarks requested by local governments in his district be placed in the bill.

For further details about the $95,000, Wright referred a reporter to Hagerstown City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman and the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.

Calls placed to Zimmerman and the Appropriations Committee just after The Herald-Mail's conversation with Wright were not immediately returned.

Zimmerman said on March 17, however, that the city didn't ask for the money and had no idea how it would be used.

On March 19, a week after The Herald-Mail's initial call to Bartlett's office, the House Appropriations Committee provided some answers after a follow-up telephone call.

Kirstin Brost, an Appropriations Committee spokeswoman, provided a letter dated June 10, 2008, from Bartlett saying, in part, that "the funding would be used for proposed project to conduct a planned level analysis for the construction of a regional limited-access highway spanning from the eastern to northern portions of the Hagerstown, Md., vicinity."

The letter noted that "the entity to receive funding for this project is City of Hagerstown, Office of the City Administrator, Gregory Murray ... located at 100 W. Washington Street."

But Murray is the Washington County administrator.

Bartlett spokesman Bud Otis said on March 19 that Bartlett's office made a mistake when earmarking the $95,000 by listing the City of Hagerstown and Gregory Murray as the recipients.

"We inadvertently put down the wrong recipient," Otis said.

He said Washington County should have been awarded the money.

Otis said Bartlett's office caught the mistake about a week ago -- roughly the same time The Herald-Mail made the first inquiry. He said the money would go to the county.

Washington County officials asked for the $95,000 about two years ago, Murray said.

"This was one we started on a long time ago for a long-term transportation project," he said.

Murray said he had not been notified that the county would receive the funding.

The money would pay for a traffic study to determine whether a road could be built from I-70 near Hagerstown's east end to the area of Showalter Road to the north, Murray said.

The road would not connect I-70 and I-81, Murray said, but it would create a northeast bypass and make traveling from one highway to the other a little easier.

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