Bitter HCFA Fight

May 11, 1992

If Baltimore County and Baltimore City were prize-fighters, they would be badly bloodied by now. So much destructive punching and counter-punching has been going on in the past few months it is a small wonder the federal Health Care Financing Administration still wants to build its $100 million headquarters here.

This slugfest exemplifies the desperation of these recessionary times. Fights for federal construction contracts and permanent jobs have gotten nasty in other parts of the country as well.

We prefer Baltimore City as the new HCFA headquarters site. The city location -- across from the gleaming Oriole Park -- has superior public transit and highway access. Because the MARC commuter train station is right next door, officials can shuttle between Baltimore and Washington with ease. The federal bureaucracy of 3,000 employees would also nicely complement Baltimore's strong health-care institutions.

The vast, campus-like Woodlawn site in Baltimore County has its advantages. But it does not match the city venue for convenience or prestige of location.

The General Services Administration, the federal government's real-estate arm, is to choose between the two sites by August. The next few weeks will be crucial. Final proposals from the two bidders will be scrutinized and fine-tuned, impact studies examined.

Political intervention in federal real-estate contracts has drastically risen in recent years, apparently because of the tough economic times. Some lobbying by supposedly well-connected politicians has landed plums in their districts. Other efforts to apply pressure have backfired.

The HCFA fight is intriguing because of the prominent role played by Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Republican who does not live near or represent the HCFA district. Apparently thinking of her political future, she has been aggressively mining the controversy for all it is worth, praising the Baltimore County site and throwing mud at Baltimore City. The district's Democratic congressman, Kweisi Mfume, in contrast, has been on both sides of the issue: He wants to please everyone. Another Democrat, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, has stayed neutral, even though it was his amendment that forced the federal agency to give serious consideration to the city site.

It is time for each side to stop politicking and let GSA make a non-political recommendation on HCFA's future. What seems to have been overlooked in the verbal wrangle is that whatever the recommendation, a vital federal agency will stay headquartered in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

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