Politics, not economic development, explains state agency move to Prince George's

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold is skeptical of the decision to move two state agencies out of his county — and for good reason. In the case of the Department of Housing and Community Development's planned relocation to Prince George's County, he raises legitimate questions of cost and political favoritism that deserve closer scrutiny.

But don't expect that closer scrutiny to come from the General Assembly. The DHCD's move to New Carrollton, announced nearly one year ago, has all the look of a political decision — the fulfillment of a five-year-old campaign promise from Gov. Martin O'Malley that fellow Democrats are unlikely to question, no matter how expensive it turns out to be or how much fuss a Republican county executive might make in the media.

The hypocrisy of this is obvious, given what happened when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. tried in 2006 to move the Maryland Department of Planning from Baltimore to Prince George's County. Democrats fought that relocation tooth and nail, taking the money to pay for the move out of the budget and nixing the deal at the Board of Public Works.

Their argument against it? Chiefly that the agency's rent was going to be increased substantially. Mr. Ehrlich countered that the move was important symbolism, as Prince George's County felt overlooked by state government. Democrats were unmoved.

Compare that to the DHCD proposal. The agency is now headquartered in a 20-year-old, state-owned building in Crownsville next to the former state mental health hospital. It's not an ideal location by any means, but the department is not exactly a walk-in retail enterprise. Its mission involves insuring loans for low-income housing projects, assisting nonprofits, awarding grants and generally trying to revitalize blighted areas.

What the O'Malley administration is proposing is to walk away from that $20 million investment and rent about 100,000 square feet of space in the Metroview development near the New Carrollton Metro station, which is served by the subway as well as Amtrak and MARC trains. Exactly how much the agency would pay in rent is apparently still under negotiation, but an internal planning document estimates the 15-year cost at about $40.7 million.

Administration officials insist the true cost over that period won't be anything close to $40 million. They expect to sell the existing building for $22 million and believe tax revenues generated by the Metroview development will create more than $30 million in benefits over the next 15 years, to produce a net savings of $11.6 million.

But that analysis is based on a lot of assumptions that may not pan out, the biggest being that the state will find a buyer for what appears to be a white elephant of a property — something it has so far failed to do. Nor does it calculate the economic harm done to businesses in the Crownsville area when those hundreds of jobs depart. Or the disruption to the lives of agency employees.

The governor has trumpeted the move as smart growth, and assisting transit-oriented development is certainly laudable. But New Carrollton is not exactly desperate for tenants, and state officials acknowledge Metroview is being developed with or without the DHCD's participation.

What the move is really about is the same motivation Mr. Ehrlich recognized five years ago: Officials in Prince George's County believe their jurisdiction has too often been overlooked by the state, and they'd like a piece of the proverbial pie.

Is that how state agencies should be located — by pork barrel politics and not merit? If so, a lot more agencies will have to be moved from Annapolis and Baltimore to the growing Washington suburbs. And last we looked, Western and Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore lacked state agency headquarters to call their own as well.

By contrast, the proposal to move the Maryland Higher Education Commission from Annapolis to Baltimore looks far less like politics and a lot more like cost-efficiency. Only 50 or so workers are involved, and the agency is moving from privately owned space to a state-owned building where it might eventually be merged with the Maryland State Department of Education.

We are not so naive as to believe this might be the first time politics has played a role in an agency's location. Baltimore has benefited many times in the past from such decisions, and the city's pending State Center project is a prime example. But such choices ought to be made thoughtfully and transparently, particularly at a time of government cutbacks. In Annapolis, it appears hard questions are asked only when such projects might benefit Republican governors.