April 08, 1993

To alleviate overcrowding at the county office building, Carroll's commissioners are thinking of acquiring three surplus portable -- "temporary" -- offices from Martin Marietta Corp. The commissioners figure the cost of moving, rehabilitating and furnishing these wooden structures will be about $3.5 million, or one-third the cost of a permanent building.

In government, temporary has an uncanny way of becoming permanent. Temporary commissions become permanent bureaucracies, and temporary hires insinuate themselves into permanent civil service jobs. However, temporary government buildings don't work the same way.

Before the commissioners commit themselves to using these portables, they ought to consider the "temporaries" that were constructed on the Mall in Washington, D.C., during World War I. These wooden structures were intended to house the large influx of people laboring for the departments of War, Navy and Army. After the war, these buildings were supposed to be torn down.

The "temps," as these increasingly shabby buildings were affectionately called, became a joke that soon lost its humor. They were hard to heat and cool and expensive to maintain. It wasn't until the early 1970s before these unsightly buildings were demolished.

The commissioners also should remember that the county is still using a courthouse that was built in 1838. That structure cost $18,000 back then, which is equivalent to millions of dollars today. True, the building has had additions and renovations. But with proper maintenance and care, the county should be able to get another 160 years of use out of it. Contrast that longevity with these temporary buildings, which may have a life of a couple of decades at the most.

The reality is that the number of employees on the county payroll is likely to increase over the next few years.

At best, the county is gaining a little time by housing employees in portables. Purchasing these buildings is not a sound, permanent solution, and the commissioners should realize this.

The $3.5 million planned for spending on the "free" portables may be fiscally conservative. But, in the long run, the expenditure does not seem financially responsible.

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