City to raise county councilman's rent

Comptroller reviews leases on water system property

May 20, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore City is considering a sixfold increase in rent charged to a Baltimore County councilman who leases the property to grow hay, flowers and vegetables.

Officials from the city comptroller's office visited the Fullerton property next to the home of Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder on Thursday and determined that the $225 annual rent his family pays to use 20 acres leased from the city water system was significantly below the fair-market rate of about $1,200, or roughly $60 an acre.

Bartenfelder's land arrangement received attention in news reports centering on whether the city was getting fair compensation for land outside its border. The councilman had not listed the lease details on his annual financial disclosure forms as required, but has corrected the oversight.

The revised lease must be worked out by the city's legal department and approved by the Board of Estimates, which could take more than a month, said Walter Horton, the comptroller's real estate officer.

"They said they'll have a new lease being drawn up," said Bartenfelder, a candidate for county executive, who seemed to be taking the news in stride. He said Horton and other city officials visited Thursday and told him to expect a rent increase for the land that his family once owned and has been leasing back since the city bought it in the early 1960s.

Horton said the visit to Bartenfelder's leased land had been planned for weeks as part of a review of 11 leases at four county water system sites: Fullerton, Liberty, Loch Raven and Pretty Boy. Horton said other leaseholders include the county Department of Recreation and Parks and the Police Department.

This week, Bartenfelder amended his most recent annual financial disclosure statement filed with the county Ethics Commission to show the lease, which he had never reported since taking office in 1994. He said Wednesday that he did not realize it was supposed to be included, but amended the report Tuesday afternoon soon after he was questioned about the lease by a television reporter.

Michael Field, an assistant Baltimore County attorney and counsel to the Ethics Commission, said Bartenfelder "jumped on it as soon as he heard there was a problem."

Barring a complaint about Bartenfelder's previous failure to report the lease, Field said it would be up to the five-member commission to decide whether to pursue the matter. The soonest the commission could take up the question would be its next meeting on June 2.

Field said the law has no provision covering a situation like this. He said it covers only cases in which a public official fails to correct omissions or mistakes within 30 days after being notified by the commission.

Bartenfelder, a farmer, said this week that he knew he was paying less than market value for the lease, but he said the value of the property is diminished by the fact that the city has the right with 30 days notice to enter the property with trucks and other heavy equipment to work on the pumping station or other water installations. That makes it difficult to plan crops for a season, he said.

He said city officials mentioned the figure of $60 an acre, and he offered $75 if they would extend the notice period for conducting city maintenance work on the land.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said the city's "law department is taking into consideration extending the 30 days to a longer time."

In Baltimore County, rents paid in 2009 for nonirrigated cropland averaged $62.50 per acre, said Barbara Rater, director of the Maryland field office for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

David Martin, the county educator for the University of Maryland Extension service, said he never heard of a situation in which a landlord had the right to enter leased cropland to do maintenance, but he said he could see how that would depress the value.

Bartenfelder said he uses about 14 of the 20 acres for hay to feed his daughter's two pet horses and plants vegetables on three acres. He has another three acres available for agriculture.

Pratt said she asked Bartenfelder to keep dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles off the city land. He said his twin 16-year-old sons have been using a small piece of the land for that purpose, but they won't any longer.

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