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The HCFA headquarters fight


The fight over locating the $100 million headquarters of the federal Health Care Financing Administration has moved behind closed doors. That's just as well because the public dispute has been one of the meanest in recent times.

We favor Baltimore City for the new HCFA headquarters. The city location -- with its superior transit access -- makes public policy sense. We also think that Baltimore's strong health-care institutions are a natural fit for this huge bureaucracy. Yet we abhor seeing two neighboring governments pitted against one another the way Baltimore County and the city have been in recent months.

Supporters of a site in Woodlawn have repeatedly accused Baltimore City of trying to "steal" HCFA, with its nearly 3,000 jobs, from a jurisdiction that has served as its headquarters since the late 1970s. Boosters of a parcel across from Oriole Park, for their part, have kept referring to Baltimore City's precarious financial state and to recent studies that show the city's loss of 29,000 jobs in the past decade.

Employee expectations -- and fears -- have played a key role. There has been lots of talk about crime, though neither site is "particularly more crime-prone" than the other, according to an evaluation done for the federal government.

The pro-Woodlawn lobby has been spearheaded by Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a feisty Republican who does not even represent that district. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat who does, has been on both sides of the issue, hoping to avoid upsetting HCFA's vocal, pro-Woodlawn employee unions. (He now favors the city site). Another Democrat, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, has stayed neutral, even though he initiated a funding amendment that obligated the agency to give serious consideration to a city site.

The shrill politicization of the HCFA headquarters question fits a nationwide pattern. As well-paying jobs became scarce during the recession, politicking and congressional intervention have reached an unprecedented level in contracts awarded by the General Services Administration, the federal government's real estate arm. In 1990, the GSA chief received only 25 appeals on contracts from members of Congress; a year later, the number had risen to 170. The closer we come to this year's elections, the heavier the politicking.

Behind-the-scenes political jockeying in the HCFA case is likely to intensify. An evaluation of the two remaining sites is due May 18. The GSA will then begin parallel negotiations with the two finalists. By early July, the GSA's preference ought to be clear. But the decision could still change if it becomes part of election year football.

We think each side in the dispute would be wise to stop this increasingly bitter dispute before it leaves permanent scars. GSA is perfectly capable of making a rational HCFA decision on its own.

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