Back to the drawing boards

February 16, 2006

Here's some really bad planning - straight from the state Planning Department.

The agency wants to move from the Baltimore State Office Complex on Preston Street to Prince George's County - home to agency Secretary Audrey E. Scott, a former Bowie mayor and County Council member.

Ms. Scott says the move is needed because of a lack of office space at Preston Street for the Maryland Historical Trust, which is joining the department. She also says such Cabinet agencies could be better distributed around the state and not so concentrated in Baltimore.

But the move would cost more than $3 million, or more than 20 percent of the agency's operating budget this fiscal year. That includes $1.75 million for moving and an estimated $1 million in annual rent and utilities (now just $10,000 a year at Preston Street).

Also, state budget analysts dispute that the department needs much more space in Baltimore: It had 148 employees there in 2002, analysts say, close to the 153 it will have after the trust moves in.

Plus, most department employees reportedly live in the Baltimore area, and they are so against commuting down the I-95 corridor that the state plans to offer them $3,000 retention bonuses - another $450,000 in all.

Keep in mind that this is the state agency that's supposed to be promoting urban revitalization, less commuting and the use of transit - and specifically is a key player in creating plans to intensely redevelop the Preston Street complex and surrounding area.

In much the same vein, also questionable is the department's hiring of Douglas Burkhardt, a businessman and one-time Annapolis City Council candidate, as the new head of the state's Office of Smart Growth. Mr. Burkhardt appears to have had little experience with growth planning - but has had some past association with Ms. Scott's son (that Ms. Scott says wasn't a factor in the hiring).

Both developments are troubling.

State budget analysts call plans for the agency's move "questionable" and "premature," and some Annapolis Democrats portray it as an Ehrlich administration bid for Prince George's votes. Smart Growth advocates say Mr. Burkhardt's hiring reflects the administration's lack of interest in effective growth management.

On both counts, Ms. Scott ought to go back to the drawing boards.

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