Plan for new county offices still alive

Despite rejection, some on council set to persevere

May 18, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Shortly before the Harford County Council rejected the administration's $82 million plan to build, renovate and consolidate county offices, Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" Chenowith proposed an amendment that would have created a diversified committee to oversee the project. That amendment failed, 6-to-1, and then the entire plan failed, 5-to-2.

"We could not amend the old bill," said Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti. "We would have had to gut it."

But now, when the county executive has called the plan dead, several council members say they will seek a compromise that might include Chenowith's committee concept.

"We have to revisit it, sooner rather than later," said Councilman James V. McMahan. "We all know the need is there. I hope we can come together on a plan in the future."

Only Chenowith and Councilman Richard Slutzky supported the Global Space Utilization Plan that included new buildings for county agencies and the sheriff's department and a renovated building to house the state's attorney, all long-overdue improvements to the work space for nearly 1,500 county employees.

"Can we keep asking dedicated employees to do more with less?" said Slutzky, arguing for the plan. "The time is now to catch up on infrastructure and meet the demands of citizens."

While convinced of the need for the project, council members said the poor economy, numerous infrastructure projects already under way and their lack of oversight as the plan moved forward forced them to vote against it, much to the dismay of those directly affected.

State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said he hoped the council understood the importance and urgency. His staff is spread through five locations in downtown Bel Air, several of them leased. He most likely will have to lease more space next year at premium rates. The plan had called for his staff to move into the renovated sheriff's headquarters on Main Street, once deputies had relocated to a new building on Hayes Street.

"Do we spend money on an organized plan or waste money on rental properties?" Cassilly asked. "It's not a question of do we spend that money or not. We're going to spend money anyway, on scattered rental properties that are an inconvenience to citizens."

Proponents of the plan said the stalled economy has led to low interest rates and has contractors clamoring for work.

"This is not the time to hide," Cassilly said. "This is a time to see an opportunity and grab it."

County Executive David R. Craig said the council may have used the economy "as a cover-up because they were unsure what to do with the plan.

"We are talking about fiscal savings," Craig said. "Now we are anticipating renting more space and providing services outside the core of Bel Air."

The plan called for a five-story office building on Main Street at Churchville Road to house most of the county agencies and to include a separate wing for council quarters. While the vote effectively killed the plan, several council members are looking for ways to revive it.

Councilman Dion Guthrie would establish a committee, made up of council members and administrators, "to hammer out a bill that will make both sides happy.

"The global plan didn't allow enough input from the council," Guthrie said. "To pass that bill would have turned $82 million over to the administration. This is a major project with dozens of buildings involved. It makes no sense to leave the council out."

Lisanti would like a short-term study to establish construction priorities and then a more structured bill that clarifies timetables and defines what happens at each step of the project.

"We need to establish a game plan for what we are building," she said. "We have to work together and make a global plan best suited to everybody."

Council President Billy Boniface would favor a phased-in plan.

"I want to set priorities, look at revenues and then proceed," he said.

Chenowith said the council "absolutely should move forward. Citizens of this county elected us to make responsible decisions that will make life better for everyone."

Sheriff L. Jesse Bane, a longtime veteran of the department, has been waiting decades for a new headquarters building. He said he has not given up.

"It's not a dead issue," he said. "I'm sure the council and the county executive will get together to resolve their differences. There is no disagreement on its need to get it done, the issue is how it's going to get done."

Sun reporter Madison Park contributed to this article.

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