5/8 TC A consultant has proposed a $26 million expansion of the Howard County government office complex to ease overcrowding caused by the county's growing bureaucracy.
The 64-page study, submitted to the county last week by Probst-Mason Inc., a Baltimore architectural firm, said a new office building would enable Howard to centralize its agencies and save money by renting less space.
The study said the county spends nearly $1 million a year to rent 76,790 square feet of space for several of its agencies.
Probst-Mason studied three possible sites on which to construct the building, but showed a clear preference for the site of the current government office complex on Court House Drive in Ellicott City.
"Our position is straightforward," the report stated. "If the new building can be located at the present office complex, it should be."
County Administrator Buddy Roogow said it would be difficult to find enough money in the capital budget to fund the project. Meanwhile, officials will continue to review the plans before reaching a decision, he said.
The five-year capital budget of County Executive Elizabeth Bobo includes $29.6 million -- $583,000 already authorized -- for a new office building.
Charles I. Ecker, the Republican challenger to Bobo in the November general election, said last night that he would reduce the county's payroll before deciding whether to build a new office structure.
"I just think we have too many employees for the population," he said.
Howard County has about 180,000 residents.
Cecil Bray, assistant county administrator, said the new structure, if built, could be taller and more spacious than the three-story George Howard Building, which contains the County Council and county executive offices.
Bray said the county would need a building that is four or five stories tall with either 80,000 or 140,000 square feet of office space -- depending on whether it decides to house the police and fire headquarters there or put them in a separate 60,000-square-foot structure.
An 80,000-square-foot building would cost $10 million. A separate police and fire headquarters would cost $7.5 million, the study said.
There was no estimate of what a new main office building would cost if police and fire operations were put there. Either plan would bring the amount of county office space to nearly 350,000 square feet.
It would cost $3.75 million for a separate storage area.
Bray said the new structure, which would be wedged between the Howard and Warfield buildings, probably would become the new center of county government.
"It would make some sense to design some nice executive offices," he said. "What we've got here doesn't compare favorably to some of the commercial offices around here."
Bray said the plan should be designed to put agencies that work with each other close to one another. He said the Department of Public Works could occupy all the Howard Building except the basement.
The consultant also studied as possible expansion sites a 38-acre parcel next to the Howard County District Court building, which is across Courthouse Drive from the office complex, and the University of Maryland Horse Research Farm site at Old Montgomery and Waterloo roads.
The District Court location would cause too much separation for pedestrians to be able to walk between the new and existing buildings, the study said. The horse farm location would have that problem, too, and would require some road improvements.
Probst-Mason said the current office site is preferable because it is more convenient and would enable the county to build enclosed walkways to connect all the buildings.
The study said the structure could be built on some of the 650 parking spaces at the complex. Two proposed garages -- expected to cost $5 million -- are envisioned to make up for that loss of parking by providing 1,000 new spaces.
The new building and parking spaces are needed to accommodate the 68 percent increase in the number of non-schools county employees over the last 10 years.
The non-schools county work force has risen from 950 in 1980 to 1,600 in 1990.
The county has tried to keep pace by buying smaller buildings and renting more and more space.
"We have grown as a government, and office space has not grown accordingly," Roogow said. "All our departments are bursting out of the seams, so we are acquiring whatever space we need."
Rebecca Horvath, director of the county Department of General Services, offered an example of the overcrowding, saying some county lawyers have to work in cubicles rather than in offices, making it difficult for them to hold confidential discussions.
Horvath has been in charge of shuffling agencies the past few months.
She said the county got some relief earlier this year when some agencies moved into the Hickory Ridge Building in Columbia, which the county bought last August to house the health department, fire administration, cable television station, Office of Housing and Community Development, police and fire academy, classrooms for Howard Community College and a computer laboratory.
The county moved its public information offices from the Howard Building to the adjacent Carroll Building several months ago. It is planning to move the Office of Economic Development from the Carroll Building to a house behind the Warfield Building to give the Law Department more room on the third floor.
The county bought the house a year ago.
"When we build, we'll have to project at least 10 years into the future," Horvath said. "It's going to take five years before the new building is built."