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Move HCFA downtown, mayor asks U.S. officials urged to support cities


The mayor of Baltimore, citing the furor started by the Los Angeles riots, urged federal officials yesterday to boost America's inner cities by choosing a downtown site as the new home of the Health Care Financing Administration.

"The help has not been forthcoming to the extent necessary," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said at a public hearing on the environmental impact of the agency's move. "And recent events have reminded us of the necessity of supporting urban America."

Yesterday's hearing at City Hall was held by the General Services Administration, which is presiding over an increasingly fierce battle over where to move HCFA, the agency that oversees the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs. The federal agency is now spread among nine buildings in Woodlawn, where it has been since the 1970s.

City officials want HCFA based at a site just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore County officials prefer a 57-acre tract just beyond the end of Security Boulevard in Woodlawn.

Mr. Schmoke and others spoke at the downtown meeting, where dozens of HCFA employees who favor the Woodlawn site sat in the audience, but backers of the city site did most of the talking.

"There's a sensitivity in the cities we have to face up to" said developer Otis Warren, the head of a minority-owned company that is developing the City Crescent federal building a few blocks from the downtown site. "We have a serious social problem," he said, adding that choosing a county site would be "business as usual."

Those comments drew a sharp response from GSA regional administrator George P. Cordes, who GSA officials at the hearing said is ultimately in charge of deciding where the HCFA will go.

"We do most of our [Baltimore-area] acquisition in the city of Baltimore," Mr. Cordes said, pointing to City Crescent, an 11-story building that is to house offices of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "For them to minimize that by pretending it didn't happen is not really fair."

Mr. Cordes and backers of the Baltimore site differed over the interpretation of an executive order signed by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s that directs the GSA to give preference to cities when choosing sites for federal agencies.

Mr. Cordes said that order doesn't apply to the HCFA decision because Congress, at the behest of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd, passed an amendment directing the GSA to consider sites in Baltimore and Woodlawn. Mr. Cordes interprets that amendment as superseding the executive order.

"The executive order is out the window. . . . Forget that," Mr. Cordes said. "Baltimore should not have been included in the original delineated area" for the HCFA's new home, he said, but was included only because Mr. Cardin's amendment overturned the HCFA's earlier preference to look only in Woodlawn.

"Interesting interpretation," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and a former Carter administration official who was involved in deciding to issue the order.

"The intent behind it was that such facilities were going to go to downtowns," Mr. Embry said in an interview after the hearing. "It wasn't just, 'This is something you should consider,' this is where they should go."

The references to the Los Angeles riots, or, as Mr. Schmoke said, to the national debate the riots have sparked, marked a change in strategy for city backers, who have avoided political references in their public campaign for the project.

They have stressed that they think the city better meets the HCFA's needs and that the HCFA would complement the city's strategy of building its economic development around the life sciences.

Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md-2nd, and HCFA employees spoke up for Woodlawn, saying that moving downtown would disrupt the lives of 2,800 employees, 90 percent of whom want to stay in the suburbs.

"Locating HCFA headquarters in the already congested area of downtown Baltimore is irrational," said Mrs. Bentley, who sits on the subcommittee that oversees the GSA.

HCFA employees pressed their view that moving downtown would increase commuting time, cost employees money and disrupt schooling and day-care arrangements. A second hearing was held last evening at Chadwick Elementary School in Woodlawn, where about 50 people came out to support the Woodlawn site. A third hearing specifically aimed at giving employees a forum is scheduled for noon today at Martin's West.

In explaining his comments, Mr. Schmoke said later that they were not intended to inject race into the decision. Mayoral aides have complained publicly that HCFA employees have appealed to race by claiming they would be at a higher risk of crime downtown -- even though crime statistics compiled by the GSA don't bear out that fear.

"The primary tactic, though I left it to others [at the hearing], is that we have a better proposal," Mr. Schmoke said. Urban opportunities "are not primary reasons GSA should make this decision, but these are factors that should not be ignored. . . . If Los Angeles had not occurred and all those other outbreaks around the country had not happened, I would have said the same things, but it probably would not have had the same impact."

He said moving the HCFA downtown would help the suburbs, because increasing opportunities and jobs in inner cities means fewer social problems.

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