The Ehrlich administration is moving ahead with plans to move the Maryland Department of Planning from its longtime state-owned offices in Baltimore to rented space in Prince George's County, despite being denied funding for the nearly $2 million relocation by the General Assembly.
The Department of General Services has prepared a lease agreement effective July 1, 2007, for the planning agency to occupy new quarters in Largo, according to an internal document obtained by The Sun. The department "has been requested" to present the lease to the Board of Public Works for approval, says the document, which is dated Aug. 1.
Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the administration is committed to the relocation to fulfill a four-year-old pledge.
"The governor made a commitment during the 2002 campaign to locate a department or state agency in Prince George's County," Fawell said. "It made sense from an economic development and homeland security standpoint to spread state agencies out."
Critics say the move would cost taxpayers more than $800,000 a year in rent and could disrupt the agency's operations by prompting many employees to quit rather than making a longer commute. Because of those concerns, lawmakers cut money from the state's budget for the relocation and ordered the administration to reconsider.
Del. Norman H. Conway, a Wicomico County Democrat who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he still has "a lot of concerns" about the relocation.
"I think we made it clear, with the budget language: `Not this year,'" Conway said.
The building that the department has selected to lease is owned by the Michael Cos., according to state assessment and taxation data. The company's Web site says it controls 7 million square feet of office and industrial space in the Washington area.
Firm founder and chairman Kenneth Michael has given campaign contributions to Democrats and Republicans alike running for local and state offices, state elections records show. Recent donations include $1,500 to the campaign of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and $500 to Comptroller William Donald Schaefer since fall 2004.
Dave Humphrey, spokesman for the general services department, said he did not know when, or even if, the lease agreement would be presented to the public works board, which must authorize such transactions. The board consists of Ehrlich, Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.
Plans to consolidate the planning department's 150 employees in rented office space in Prince George's County drew criticism last winter from Smart Growth advocates and from the department's own staff, the bulk of whom live in the Baltimore area.
In a report submitted last month in response to the General Assembly's request for further study, planning and general services officials reiterated that the best and most cost-effective course for the planning department still is to relocate to Prince George's.
That report drew fire last week from the legislature's staff analysts, who wrote that the administration review was incomplete and that the move "still appears premature and unjustified."
"The study was kind of disappointing," said Warren G. Deschenaux, director of policy analysis for the Department of Legislative Services. He questioned how the administration could proceed with signing a lease when the money for it was stripped from this year's budget.
Conway, the appropriations chairman, said he believes the administration needs to provide lawmakers with still more justification of the move before signing a lease.
Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott defended the relocation, though she professed ignorance of why the lease is being pursued now, when funding is not available and no move is planned for at least a year.
"My number one basic need is to get my staff under one roof," Scott said, noting that her department absorbed the Maryland Historical Trust a year ago in a restructuring approved by the legislature. The trust's 40-some employees, formerly part of the Department of Housing and Community Development, mostly work in state-owned offices in Crownsville.
"I need to combine the two parts of my department," she said. Scott also denied knowing that Michael Cos. owned the building selected for her department, though she said its chairman gave political contributions to "both sides of the aisle." A call to the company yesterday was not returned.
Legislative analysts and lawmakers continue to question the costs and wisdom of the relocation. It would cost $1.75 million to prepare the Largo building and move the planning department there, according to legislative analysts. The rent for the new offices would be $838,500 a year, compared with about $10,000 a year the department pays to use state-owned offices at 301 W. Preston St.