Harford council defeats executive's space plan

Economics, oversight cited in vote against $82 million plan to consolidate agencies

May 15, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun reporter

The state fire marshal will not allow one more employee to move into the Harford County Administration Building. The sheriff maintains a major part of his operations four miles away from his headquarters in downtown Bel Air. The state's attorney's office is paying more than $600,000 in rent annually for five locations in the county seat, one of them called "the dungeon."

Employees are spread throughout 24 locations in a crowded county seat, many of the buildings with costly leases. But the space crunch will not change in the near future. The county executive's $82 million Global Space Utilization Plan failed to win council approval by a 5-2 vote.

The plan would have consolidated agencies into one new five-story building, renovated other spaces and eliminated rentals. It also would have improved the work space for the county's nearly 1,500 employees and offered residents a "one-stop shop" to handle business with various agencies, officials said.

While council members agreed on the pressing need for work space, the stalled economy and their lack of project authority stymied them.

"I have great reservations on our revenue projections," Council President Billy Boniface said yesterday. "Hard times are ahead for the foreseeable future. I fully support this project, but we were basically being asked to sign off on $82 million with no oversight."

But County Executive David R. Craig countered yesterday, "They don't get to control construction. People entrusted me with that job."

Boniface and several colleagues favored a phased-in building schedule, rather than what they called the administration's "all or nothing approach."

"The plan only made sense financially as a logical progression," Craig said yesterday. "We presented the least expensive plan. With interest rates low and contractors competing for jobs, this is the perfect time to build. If we wait for the market to rebound, the project becomes more expensive."

The county intended to fund the project with alternative financing, most likely a lease-to-own arrangement. The council vote late Tuesday night would have capped spending at $82 million.

"There would have been no bonding and no indebtedness," Craig said.

The county is already taking on too much debt with several school, roads and infrastructure projects, Boniface said.

"I don't want to sign off on the Taj Mahal in downtown Bel Air," he said. "I have seen too many operations go under because they moved forward on speculations."

Councilman Richard Slutzky, who voted for the project, said the council had authority to review and manage costs.

"We had the controls in place to deal with each piece," he said. "What have we accomplished by not going ahead? It will cost more to build in the future and we will be paying more in rents for the agencies we can't house."

Construction of an administration building on Main Street and another three-story building a few blocks away would have kicked off the project. The vacated Sheriff's Department on Main Street would have been renovated into offices for the state's attorney.

Sales of the county's smaller downtown buildings would yield about $6 million, and leasing the Bond Street building that houses the County Council would generate as much as $14 million over the next 20 years, officials said.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said she will resubmit a bill with set timelines and a structured building schedule.

"What died was a bad bill that gave the county a blank check to do any of a half-dozen scenarios," she said.

Craig said he sees no need for another bill.

"The council has chosen the old-fashioned approach and in their infinite wisdom, will have to rent more space rather than own it," Craig said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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