Baltimore lawmakers say a plan that would move 110 state jobs from the city to Prince George's County smells more like election-year politics than a good idea.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. included more than $3 million in next year's proposed budget to move the state Department of Planning from the State Center complex, ostensibly to get the department's disparate offices under one roof.
However, some say the move is a thinly veiled attempt to woo votes in one of the state's most densely Democratic regions.
"I think there are political motivations, and it's so unfortunate," said state Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat. "It could be that someone wants to try to make it seem as though the current administration cares about a certain area.
"Is it because there are a certain number of voters in a certain area?"
Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott said the move is purely to accommodate the Maryland Historic Trust's recent merger into her department. The trust's 43 employees are based in Crownsville.
Scott, a former Bowie mayor and past member of the Prince George's County Council who considered running for governor as a Republican in 2002, said she would like to house everyone in Baltimore.
But after "personally walking all the floors" of State Center, she said she knew that the office would need to move - ideally to a location that would allow another municipality to share in the wealth of state offices.
Baltimore has bragging rights to 80 percent of state agency headquarters, Scott told a House appropriations subcommittee yesterday. Prince George's, the second-largest Maryland county, has none, though it claims the University of Maryland's main campus.
Prince George's politicians, Scott said, made it clear to her that they have fought for more than 10 years for a state headquarters. "I checked with the second floor [the governor's office]," she added, "and I was told this was a request that should be given every consideration."
"There is a hope," Scott said, "that we could be a little more even and fair."
The planning secretary also said the department was likely going to have to move in a few years anyway, to make way for an ambitious redevelopment of the State Center complex on West Preston Street.
"Not everything is about politics," said Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, head of the Prince George's House delegation. "This is about equity for Prince George's County. They're state agencies, not Baltimore City agencies. ... We don't want paranoia to set in every time some other area of the state gets something."
Planning Department employees, who have balked almost unanimously at the move, packed the legislative hearing yesterday. More than half of the department's 110 employees based at State Center live in Baltimore City or Baltimore County, officials say.
Joseph Tassone, a director of resource conservation planning who has been with the department for 18 years, protested the planned move with some of his co-workers.
"I'm not here to say, 'Don't put money in the budget for the move because it's inconvenient to us, and we don't like it,'" he told delegates. "The reason [is] we see very little or no public benefit - and we see very high public costs."
The governor asked for $2.75 million for the move - $1.75 million for one-time moving and office setup costs and another $1 million annually to rent space.
The department pays about $10,000 a year for its offices at state-owned 301 W. Preston St.
Last fall, the department solicited information on sites in Greenbelt, New Carrolton and Largo.
Ehrlich also included in his budget $450,000 to pay "retention bonuses" of $3,000 to employees who make the move.
In a sternly worded report released yesterday, legislative analysts recommended cutting the money for the move and the bonuses, calling the plan "questionable," "premature" and "inconsistent with legislative intent."
When the Ehrlich administration sought legislative approval last year to transfer the Maryland Historic Trust to the Department of Planning, officials told lawmakers that it would cost $577,600 to move everyone into State Center.
The report said "it seems reasonable" that the Planning Department could still fit the merged employees into the Baltimore office and, if not, then deciding to move to Prince George's is "premature and currently unfounded."
"It appears that the State agency responsible for promoting smart growth failed to implement the due diligence necessary to ensure that its actions were consistent with smart growth principles," the report states.
Baltimore's Democratic delegates and senators, who have received dozens of letters, e-mails and calls from distraught planning employees, are fighting the plan.
They say the move smacks of election-year politics - otherwise, they say, it makes little sense.
"I just don't really think there are any valid reasons for it to be done," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the chamber's majority leader. "Why would we be creating this additional expense?"
Added Del. Salima S. Marriott, head of the city's House delegation: "We're adamantly opposed to that."
At the hearing, appropriations subcommittee Chairman Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, appeared skeptical of the plan, dryly asking Scott, "Where did this exciting idea come from?"
He suggested that rather than spend millions on the move, "Save the money and put it to some useful purpose in Prince George's County."