Spotlight hits an obscure agency Pratt controversy draws attention to real estate office PPTC

April 11, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Eric Siegel | JoAnna Daemmrich and Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Julius Henson's controversial appointment as Baltimore's real estate officer has made a little-known city agency into a household name.

In contrast to Baltimore's much larger housing, education and public works departments, the real estate department is rarely in the public spotlight, even though it has broad responsibilities in overseeing $3.2 billion worth of buildings.

Working from a corner office on the third floor of City Hall, the nine-employee department helps manage 350 city-owned buildings, from health clinics to libraries. The department also arranges leases for city agencies, buys and sells property for parks, schools and urban revitalization projects, and organizes the yearly sales of tax-delinquent properties.

In the fiscal year that ended in July, the agency, which has an annual budget of $535,920, acquired 237 properties and leased buildings with revenues of $4.2 million a year, city documents show.

Since its inception in 1947, the real estate department has been under the comptroller's jurisdiction in an attempt to shield it from political tampering.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the department played a prominent role in shaping city real estate deals, including the $500 million, 135-acre Port Covington Business Park, the Belvedere Hotel, the Hawkins Point landfill and Harrison's Pier 5 hotel.

John J. Hentschel, the city's real estate officer from 1982 to 1992, often appeared before the Board of Estimates to advise the panel on land deals.

"We evaluated everything from an overall city viewpoint -- was it a good or bad deal for the city," Mr. Hentschel said.

In recent years, the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic development agency, has brokered many of the key real estate deals. The housing department also has played an increasingly prominent role, but the real estate department conducts a final review of all deals before they are brought before the board.

Three years ago, Arthur E. Held, the real estate officer under then-comptroller, Jacqueline F. McLean, argued that the city had not properly monitored its leases of property to private groups, from day care centers to marinas.

Baltimore's new comptroller, Joan M. Pratt, has said much the same thing. Mr. Henson, her campaign manager and former business partner whom she chose for the job without interviewing anyone else, will be able to save the city money, she has said.

"He has informed me of tenants that don't have leases; he has informed me that leases have not been reviewed periodically," she said in an interview two weeks ago. "In some instances, the city is paying operating costs for some of the tenants and the operating costs exceed the rental collections."

Yesterday, Ms. Pratt publicly opposed a $2.25 million lease-purchase agreement involving the old Signet Bank Center on Guilford Avenue on grounds that Mr. Henson's department had not been consulted properly.

Pub Date: 4/11/96

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