City real estate mess Anbridge discoveries: No one knows what Baltimore City owns, leases or gets paid.

June 17, 1996

IT IS A FAMILIAR but sad refrain. Within days after becoming Baltimore's real estate officer, former Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge discovered inadequate or non-existant data bases, big gaps in essential information, computers that cannot handle the work they are supposed to perform.

Earlier this year, M. Jay Brodie, the new head of Baltimore Development Corp., made a similar discovery in his agency. No wonder Baltimore City, which often compares itself to a $3.2 billion corporation, is in such dismal shape.

How dismal? Nowhere in the municipal government is there a centralized computer system listing the properties the city owns, leases or rents out, the termination dates of such commitments and whether payments are current.

Instead, municipal agencies sign leases in a haphazard fashion, obtaining new space in commercial buildings when city-owned buildings stand vacant nearby. The city's bookkeeping is so weak officials often do not even know that rent checks from outside service providers have repeatedly bounced and are long overdue.

Since the city does not have the computer capability to tap into data bases that are routinely used by the private sector to determine comparable appraisal values, the city's building appraisals are in doubt. And if rents and sales prices do not reflect true market value, taxpayers can easily be shortchanged.

We urge City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt to appoint a task force of qualified professionals to develop steps and a timetable to bring the city's property management functions up to the level of private industry.

This will mean centralized computerized data bases (to which the various bureaucracies must have access) that show not only the ownership of buildings but the status and expiration dates of rental agreements. There must be computerized records showing which public grants to developers are overdue. And the data bases should contain such basic operational information as the cost of maintaining, heating and air-conditioning buildings either owned or leased by the city.

Baltimore City has much potential wealth. But because of mismanagement, much of this wealth is being wasted.

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