Scrutinizing renewal funds

West side: To protect itself, city should use federal guidelines for compensating merchants.

April 18, 2001

MORE THAN five weeks ago, we urged Mayor Martin O'Malley and City Comptroller Joan Pratt to investigate whether some west side renewal area merchants received inflated relocation costs. The good news is that the investigation will take place.

A belated probe is not enough, though. The mayor must also make sure scheming speculators can't rip off the taxpayers again.

He could do that easily by sticking to the 1970 Uniform Relocation Assistance Act, which the federal government uses as a guideline for compensation.

Mr. O'Malley protests that some dollar amounts that law provides are outdated. So what? It's not the dollar amounts that count, but the thrust of the act. It says businesses that are relocated can't claim compensation for anything more than "reasonable expenses." The guideline don't guarantee compensation for establishments that choose to go out of business.

Instead of following that common-sense approach, the mayor gave west side merchants the choice of liquidation. This is how the city ended up paying $532,570 to a record store owner for compact discs and pagers, even though he had another store just two blocks away.

A city audit of the west side relocations is a good start. But it could turn into a worthless whitewash exercise unless Mayor O'Malley also overhauls the compensation guidelines.

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