Harford planning to bring county's agencies together

Craig wants new administration building

April 06, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Harford County officials yesterday presented a sweeping plan to consolidate government services now scattered around Bel Air into a handful of facilities in the heart of the county seat, including a new $40 million administration building.

The plan is part of County Executive David R. Craig's proposed $370 million in capital spending -- more than double last year's construction tab -- which the County Council began scrutinizing yesterday in an all-day work session.

A new government headquarters could take up about 150,000 square feet in a five-story building on what is now a county-owned parking lot and former gas station along Churchville Road and Main Street.

"The No. 1 goal is citizen services," administration director Lorraine T. Costello said. "We want to get it down to one-stop shopping for any person."

Officials say it would pack most agencies under one roof and improve government efficiency, while spurring a domino effect that would allow other county agencies -- such as the sheriff's office, state's attorney's office and Health Department, which also are spread around the county -- to become more centralized.

Last year, a skeptical council stripped out more than $4 million for the administration building, saying the county had more pressing needs. And that was before Craig, a Republican, increased capital spending considerably to cover an array of school and public works projects.

"It's a huge plan," said Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat from Havre de Grace.

Other Baltimore-area jurisdictions, such as Howard and Anne Arundel counties, also are looking into ways to consolidate government functions, though their plans have yet to take shape.

In Howard County, the $225 million price tag for a new county government development has proved too costly to move forward, while Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold has proposed a $500,000 study to examine a consolidation of government services.

Harford's past two county executives commissioned studies -- in 1999 and 2005 -- that concluded the county needed to streamline operations. But only Craig, who also has pledged $220 million to renovate or build seven new schools, pushed forward.

"Our three previous county executives all initiated an aspect of this plan for it to become a reality," said Richard D. Lynch, the county's director of inspections, licensing and permits. "This is the first time a plan has been proposed that is truly comprehensive."

But many of the details are unclear: for example, whether the County Council could retain space on Bond Street or move into the new facility. Similarly, Sheriff L. Jesse Bane is reluctant to vacate his agency's historic home across from the Harford County Circuit Courthouse.

At a budget work session, council members were told that the county expects to spend $98 million in rent over the next 20 years and to make renovations to comply with building codes.

Construction of a new administration building and renovations to certain properties, along with the sale of surplus properties, would cost about $77.4 million, officials said. The payments likely would be paid through bonds financed over 20 years.

"Should you pay rent for 20 years, or buy a house and pay a mortgage and own it in the end?" Costello said. "It's just common sense."justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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