Don't call this a 'boondoggle'

Forum Extra

April 13, 1992|By Robert W. Hearn

BOONDOGGLE" is a slang word for a trifling or pointless project, according to Webster's, and "Boondoggle on Baltimore Street" (editorial, March 16) is how you characterized city efforts, spanning three administrations, to remove and relocate the bottling plant in the 900 block of West Baltimore St. That characterization is wrong.

Those decaying structures were identified as a blighting influence in 1983 and were acquired by the previous city administration in October 1987, triggering mandatory relocation assistance under federal law. In essence, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) auditors have unfairly criticized the current administration for actions in which it had no choice.

The criticism is based largely on an audit report that relocation costs apparently ballooned from $237,000 in 1983 to at least $5.5 million today. If that was the full story, The Evening Sun, like HUD, would be rightfully indignant. In reality, the $237,000 was only an initial 1983 "drive-by" estimate of the value of only a part of the site. It did not cover the cost of acquiring all the properties on the site and moving the business, nor did it take into account machinery replacement costs required under federal law.

The HUD auditors also failed to note that even in 1983 city files contained preliminary projections for acquisition and relocation costs of just over $1 million. All these figures were tentative and were obviously not the basis for the 1987 decision to acquire the property and should not be grounds for audit comments today.

In 1983, considerable redevelopment activity occurred along West Baltimore Street, and the review of the 900 block was only a preliminary look at what might be done in addition to other activities. By 1986 plans for this block were firming up. Drawings and descriptions of possible site plans were made, and in rTC October 1987, the city acquired the property. That action by a prior administration formally committed Baltimore to all relocation payments required under federal law. While the same decision might not be made today, there is no turning back once acquisition takes place.

Finding a new site for the plant has been a challenge, and the property owner has seriously considered a site out of the city. We think we are close in current negotiations to keeping the plant here.

We are encouraged that the plant and its 40 jobs will be saved and that 20 new jobs will be created at a new site. Moreover, before acquisition, the 800 and 900 blocks of West Baltimore St. returned only about $31,600 of real estate taxes to the city; after redevelopment and based on minimum standards, the tax benefits are expected to increase substantially.

If federal auditors are going to comment on local government decisions, they need to tell the full story. Otherwise, they will appear more interested in seeking headlines than in correcting problems. All of us can do without this kind of second-guessing.

The writer is commissioner of the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development.

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