The fight over HCFA

September 03, 1991

The battle for the Health Care Financing Administration, which pits Baltimore city against Baltimore County, points out more than anything in recent memory how ludicrous it has become to operate two totally autonomous local governments in extremely close proximity.

The fight, which has deteriorated into name-calling, is, however, understandable. HCFA employs 3,000 people who spend $12 million to $15 million a year where they work -- in gas stations, dry-cleaning establishments, restaurants, retail stores. For 12 years that location has been Woodlawn.

County advocates, as such, are right to fight to try to keep HCFA in Baltimore County. But Rep. Helen Bentley and County Executive Roger Hayden go too far in charging that the city is trying to "steal" HCFA from the county. The federal agency, after all, must move to consolidate operations. And Baltimore city desperately needs a financial infusion of the magnitude a new HCFA office complex offers. Moreover, the location the city has proposed, near the Camden Yards baseball stadium, would have broader benefits that other locations cannot offer -- especially given the logical links with nearby institutions like the city's medical schools that could spur development of a wide range of other health-related businesses.

The federal government, of course, will ultimately choose the site for the new HCFA building. But the city certainly has every right to compete. And that may be the real problem: Why should the city and the county be forced into a bloody political battle for dollars in the first place? Many of the people who work and live in both jurisdictions move back and forth between the two -- sometimes several times a day -- using recreational and municipal services in both places and spending money in both as well. Weekends find city and county families picnicking at Oregon Ridge, visiting the zoo or shopping at the Inner Harbor. Obviously, the geographical lines that set their disparate tax burdens and insurance costs and circumscribe the quality of services are artificial and largely irrelevant. Yet despite the relative integration of virtually all other aspects of city-county life, regional cooperation remains merely a buzzword.

The HCFA conflict, and a possible similar struggle over the Social Security Administration, are ample evidence that the way both city and county governments view their roles and responsibilities is painfully parochial. Clearly, both jurisdictions could benefit from a real sharing of revenue, resources and services. The political boundaries rooted in the outdated notion that the needs and problems of the city are vastly different from the county must start coming down.

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