Sweetheart Deal in Prince George's

May 21, 1991

Once again, Prince George's County taxpayers are being asked to bankroll a sweetheart land deal. The beneficiaries of this latest abdication of responsibility are Laurel Physicians Inc., a group of doctors seeking to erect medical offices on a sprawling 50-acre parcel at the Greater Laurel Beltsville Hospital. Dimensions Health Corp., which runs county hospitals, will sublease a half-acre parcel to the doctors for $10,000 a year, half its true value according to area developers. As if this weren't bad enough, the package includes another 3.5 acres rent-free.

Dimensions vigorously defends the transaction as a means of keeping the hospital's "loyal, heavy admitters" nearby. The group insists doctors will compensate for income lost from the free land -- $80,000 a year -- by bringing more patients to the hospital. The math goes like this: Each physician admits five new patients a year, which equals 200 admissions and $1 million in revenue.

It is outrageous for the council to sanction such a blatant giveaway at a time when the county is operating under massive financial duress. Dimensions, the source of this largess, is itself a perennial drain on county coffers, having obtained $7.5 million in subsidies since 1987. It reportedly is about to request another $5.5 million. Dimensions has missed no opportunity to push this unwise deal -- which could lead to unnecessary hospitalizations -- as a tool for economic development. Yet we fail to see the wisdom of putting up yet another office building in a glutted market.

Missing, too, is the rationale for handing out such a lucrative plum -- at taxpayers' expense -- without competitive bidding. Much of the grousing about this deal is sour grapes masquerading as civic concern from angry competitors. Nonetheless, it should raise a red flag with citizens. Alarm bells also should sound in the county executive's office, which a few weeks ago was making much about overhauling the Prince George's ethic board in the wake of questionable land deals between the county and well-connected developers.

The ethics board housecleaning is only one answer to stubborn problems that persist like weeds in Prince George's. This most recent land grab is different in one respect, though: It would be a group of so-far nameless doctors, not developers and politicians, who profit from this sweetheart lease. But the big losers are the same--county taxpayers.

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