By Barbara Pash
Fulfilling a four-year old campaign promise, Gov. Martin O’Malley announced the relocation of the state Department of Housing and Community Development from Anne Arundel County to near an undetermined Metro station in Prince George’s County a month ago with great fanfare.
But county officials, union leaders and many of the 330 people who work at the agency aren’t happy about the move and its cost to them and the state.
The governor touted the move as a boost for economic development at transit stations in a county where the agency does a lot of its work. The Department of General Services began accepting “expressions of interest” from developers on a relocation site Friday.
But current workers — many of whom live in Anne Arundel County and the Baltimore area — complain there is no mass transit to get them there.
“They are very worried about not having jobs either because they can’t afford to commute or they’re not willing to move to a new location,” said Dave Abrams, spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold.
David Boschert, director of the Maryland Classified Employees Association, has heard from union members who work at the housing agency and they’re not happy, either. “We are very concerned,” he said.
Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union that work in the housing department have started a petition against the move.
Abrams said housing agency employees also complained that the announcement came as a surprise and “they don’t see a reason for it.”
A task force reported to the General Assembly in January on locations that would be suitable to house headquarters of state agencies in Prince George’s County, where there are currently no state agencies headquartered — long a sore point for county legislators.
The county, which is the second largest in the state, is the home of the large flagship campus of the University of Maryland, Bowie State University, and the headquarters of the entire University System, which employs over 400 people.
Even though the report favored moving the housing department “to ensure a better alignment with its operations,” it also stated that “the Task Force acknowledges that given the current fiscal climate in the state it would be difficult for a state agency to relocate at this time.”
Besides the housing department, the report identified the Military Department as a candidate for such a move.
Leopold said the task force report shows that the move is “ill-timed” and a “waste of taxpayer money,” as he wrote in a letter to Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot. The letter was sent to them last month as members of the Board of Public Works that will ultimately have to approve the housing agency move.
Leopold estimated that close to half the housing department’s employees live in Anne Arundel County. “I have received strenuous negative responses from these workers,” he said. “Their lives will be disrupted.”
O’Malley’s announcement, at the Naylor Road Station in Prince George’s County, was designed to highlight the state’s efforts for transit-oriented development. A list of stations in Maryland that will be the focus of such development includes four in Prince George’s County.
Michael Gaines, assistant secretary for real estate in the General Services Department, said the state is beginning the process to pick a site in Prince George’s County.
“The expectation is that we will look for a property-owner or developer to provide a facility of 100,000 square feet that the state would lease on behalf of the housing department,” Gaines said.
Much will depend on the response the state receives to the “expression of interest” from developers and property-owners that opened Friday. “We hope to generate interest from a large base,” said Gaines. Judging from the number of phone calls and e-mails about it, he expects it “to be widely responded to.”
Gaines said that a preliminary review of the county real estate market indicates that there will be opportunities to relocate the housing department for closer proximity to the businesses and clients it serves, and to act as an economic stimulus for Prince George’s County.
There is no estimate for the cost of the move, said Gaines. “That’s why we are doing the request for information. We hope there’s a large response, so we can get a better sense” of the economic situation.
The housing agency is currently located in a state-owned facility in Crownsville. Gaines said the General Services Department is working on alternative plans for that facility. One option is to put another stage agency there.
Despite the optimism of O’Malley’s administration, MCEA’s Boschert says the move “is not in the best interest of the state.”
Some housing agency employees belong to MCEA or to AFSCME, while others are not members of a union. Boschert, a former Republican state delegate from Anne Arundel County currently campaigning to regain his delegate seat, said that the lack of public transportation between Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties would be a problem for agency workers.
Boschert said the relocation “makes no economic sense to me,” and called it “more political” than “a smart business move.”
Robert Hannon, director of the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corp., made a similar point. “It’s early in the process and everything is speculative,” he said. “But it seems the reason for the move is not based on financial considerations.”