Groups take on costly leases

City Hall's rent-free space too small, agencies say

`There was no privacy'

Retirement systems urged to reconsider

August 19, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The two agencies that run retirement systems for city employees are giving up free but cramped quarters in City Hall for a downtown office building where they will have nearly 10 times the space -- and a combined $34,000-a-month rent bill.

The agencies -- one administers retirement benefits for police officers and firefighters, and the other does the same for municipal workers and elected officials -- also will pay more than $2 million to renovate the 4 1/2 floors they will occupy at 7 E. Redwood St.

The expenses have angered some retirees, who say agencies entrusted with $3.1 billion in pension funds shouldn't be spending so freely.

"They should reconsider and stay where they are if it's free," said Ida B. Williams-Ward, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Retirees Chapter 1. "We don't want the hardship."

But agency officials say they have been so cramped in City Hall that they have had to put desks in hallways -- not an appropriate setting, they say, for discussing personal financial and health issues with retirees.

That should not be the case at the new offices in the 1920s-era high-rise, which is owned by the city but is not rent-free to city agencies because it is managed by the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp.

The Employees and Elected Officials Retirement Systems, which have a staff of 17, will occupy about 17,000 square feet of the building. That works out to about 1,000 square feet -- about the size of a small rowhouse -- for each worker. The Fire and Police Retirement System has about 20 employees and will move into another 17,000 square feet. Both agencies said they intend to double their staffs -- another reason, officials say, for the move to larger quarters.

Until last month, when the fire and police system moved into temporary space in the Redwood Street building, the agencies shared 3,888 square feet on the sixth floor of City Hall.

"There was no privacy," said Thomas P. Taneyhill, executive director of the fire and police system. "There was no way for confidentiality to be maintained."

The retirement systems cover about 19,000 active and retired municipal employees, 37 elected officials and 10,000 police officers and firefighters.

"We're not looking to maximize our space," said Roselyn Spencer, executive director of the other retirement system. "We service retirees who have wheelchairs and walkers, and it's important to have adequate space."

The agencies began paying monthly rent of about $17,000 each last month, expecting that work on the office space was about to begin. The renovations, delayed yesterday by the Board of Estimates, are expected to take at least six months.

The fire and police system decided it could not wait that long for more space, so last month it took temporary offices in the building, at a cost of $6,000 a month. That arrangement came under fire yesterday at the city Board of Estimates, where members questioned why the agency had saddled itself with two monthly rents -- $17,000 for the permanent space and $6,000 for the temporary offices.

"I could see the pensioners rightly annoyed," Mayor Martin O'Malley said.

City Council President Sheila Dixon said she'd rather see the agency "cramped instead of paying double rent."

"Move y'all back up there" to the sixth floor, she suggested.

The board postponed its vote on a $2.7 million contract to renovate the offices after concerns were raised that the bid from Southway Builders Inc. was 19 percent above the city's estimate for the job.

The city acquired the building for $7 million from Legg Mason Inc. in 1997, when the firm consolidated its operations on Light Street, said Irene Van Sant, project analysis director with BDC.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who is a board member for both retirement systems, said the deal is a good one for the agencies and the city.

"From what I understand, they needed the space," Pratt said. "And the city owns 7 East Redwood, and there were some vacancies. If we had to move, it made more sense to move into one of the buildings we own."

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