Knee-Jerk Votes Make Poor Policies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If a graduate course in public administration needs a case study of a poorly conceived and executed government decision, the county commissioners' agreement to purchase the former Telemecanique Inc. plant for the Board of Education headquarters would be an excellent example.

From just about every perspective, the commissioners' decision to go through with this deal makes little sense. But myopic decision-making seems to be a consistent theme with this board of commissioners.

Since taking office last December, this board -- W. Benjamin Brown, Donald I. Dell and Richard T. Yates -- has left a legacy of poorly made decisions.

Instead of gathering as much information as possible and pondering the consequences of their decisions, these commissioners seem to make knee-jerk decisions that are based on their limited vision of the world.

The Telemecanique purchase is just the latest.

If the commissioners are at all concerned about the public's interests, it isn't evident in any of their major decisions. When it came to protecting the interests of people renting property and neighboring property owners, the commissioners sided with irresponsible landlords who maintain substandard units.

Confronted with the possibility of hosting an Olympic trial, the commissioners -- without one iota of research into the millions of dollars in economic benefits -- rejected this public relations and financial bonzana. Despite their professed interest in controlling the county's explosive residential growth, the only action they have taken is to fiddle with the number of lots developers can record on land records.

Now we have the spectacle of these supposedly penny-pinching commissioners spending an extravagant sum of money for the former Telemecanique plant, which doesn't come close to meeting the education department's needs.

By their own admission, the commissioners paid the asking price for the property. This is equivalent to walking into an auto dealership and paying the sticker price for the car sitting on the showroom floor. Only the most naive buyers don't know that the asking price in car and real estate deals is the starting point for negotiations.

This property is hardly the most desirable commercial parcel on the market.

It has a history of contaminated groundwater. It doesn't have sewer or water service. It is located on a two-lane country road. The owners haven't been able to find a tenant or buyer in two years.

In retail parlance, the Telemecanique building is "damaged goods." There is little excuse to pay the asking price, particularly if the buyers are using scarce taxpayer funds.

Putting aside the fact that the commissioners were naive negotiators, a rudimentary analysis reveals that the commissioners could have gotten a lot more for their money than they did by purchasing the Telemecanique site.

The county apparently is willing to spend $6.1 million ($4.2 million for the site plus $1.9 million for renovations) to build a headquarters for the 250 people working for the education department.

The purchase would also allow the county to consolidate the department's warehouse and maintenance shop.

Assuming the board needs a 50,000-square-foot building (200 square feet per employee), it could spend $100 a square foot and build a new office building that would cost $5 million. If the board wanted to reduce the cost and spent $80 a square foot, the building would cost $4 million. Such a building would be designed specifically to the department's needs -- unlike this used industrial building, which was intended for manufacturing, not office, use.

To build a warehouse and maintenance shop, the county would have between $1.1 million and $2.1 million to spend, depending on how much it wanted to pay for the office building.

There is absolutely no indication that the commissioners undertook this type of analysis. If they did, the folly of purchasing the Telemecanique site would have been obvious.

Nor did the commissioners think through the implications of locating a major government office on industrial zoned land in a county that needs more industrial zoned land. With this action, the commissioners removed a valuable property from the county's tax rolls.

It might have made much more financial sense for the county to leave this property in private hands and locate an undeveloped parcel for the education department headquarters.

It might have been even more beneficial to the county to solicit development proposals from private developers to build office space that the county would lease. The benefits of this approach are two-fold: The county is able to lease newly-built office space and adds a commercial building to its tax base.

Unfortunately, the commissioners never engage in this type of critical and analytical thinking. They don't even ask their staff to do it for them.

Whatever the issue -- from the county budget to managing growth -- the commissioners seem incapable of organizing a set of objectives, developing a strategic plan to achieve them and making decisions to put the plan into practice. The result is public policy that Carroll's taxpayers must live with.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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