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Agency's plan to buy 138 desks questioned $280,000 from state would cover the cost of modular stations


A Howard County agency charged with helping the poor plans to spend about $2,000 per bureaucrat on office furniture.

As part of its planned move from the Howard County District Court building in Ellicott City to Columbia's Gateway Center, the county Department of Social Services wants to spend as much as $280,000 in state funds for 138 modular desk stations.

The department has 143 full-time employees, not all of whom will use the desk stations. The extra stations will be used for future staff expansions.

"I'm not going to apologize for a nice" office, said Sam Marshall, department director. "Will our office be nice? Yes. Will it be cheerier? Yes. Will it be brighter? Yes. Will there be a lot of new furniture in places? Yes. Will it be posh? No."

Social Services workers now work with old, unmatched furniture that is not designed for today's computers and other office equipment.

In Mr. Marshall's office, none of the furniture matches. The two guest chairs have chrome frames and orange, vinyl seats. Foam stuffing is bursting from one of the chairs.

The proposed desk stations are small units that contain a desk, file cabinets, bookshelves, a chair -- even a coatrack. They are designed to fit together, in pods.

Mr. Marshall said the interior design of the agency's new Columbia office -- inside the Luskin's building, 7125 Gateway Drive -- calls for large open spaces with work pods. The department is to move there Nov. 1.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker essentially has asked the County Council to accept the $280,000 the state is willing to spend on the furniture. The county-run department is almost entirely funded by the state.

"They need the furniture to make the [new office] space work," Mr. Ecker said in an interview Tuesday.

The Howard County Council must approve the expense. At a meeting earlier this week, council member Dennis Schrader questioned Mr. Marshall about the $280,000.

"That's a fair amount of money for furniture," Mr. Schrader said.

But Mr. Marshall told him that the money for the furniture would come from the state -- not the county -- which seemed to quell Mr. Schrader's concerns.

The council is expected to continue discussing the furniture at its next meeting Monday night.

The new office furniture for the Howard department is part of a statewide refurbishing of Social Services offices. Already, similar offices in St. Mary's and Baltimore counties have received similar desk stations.

"These are very basic units that we feel are in no way extravagant," said J. C. Shay, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

Mr. Marshall said the desk stations will be purchased through competitive bids.

After the new furniture arrives, he plans to place some of the current staff desks inside client interview rooms. The interview rooms are stocked with the worst of the department's furniture.

Mr. Marshall also expects to buy additional office furniture for areas outside the desk stations -- such as client waiting areas and top-level administrative offices. Mr. Marshall said he did not know how much more furniture would be purchased, but the costs would not be extravagant.

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