October 6, 2011

Franchot protests “emergency” move of higher ed office

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Under protests from Comptroller Peter Franchot, the Board of Public Works approved an emergency contract to build out a new home for the Annapolis-based Maryland Higher Education Commission in the same Baltimore building as the State Board of Education.

Franchot voted against the $2.4 million contract with the Alexandria, Va.-based Christman Company, because he felt the project was not an emergency, but board members Gov. Martin O’Malley and Treasurer Nancy Kopp supported the move. Franchot was also not pleased with the lack of a methodology that he could understand to figure out if an agency should be located in state-owned or rented offices.

“It’s ludicrous,” Franchot said, responding to the explanation from Department of General Services Secretary Alvin Collins and interim MHEC Secretary Danette Howard that it would take years to get the project done otherwise. “And there’s the lack of an overall strategic plan.”

The Maryland Higher Education Commission currently rents office space in Annapolis, but would move to be closer to the state Department of Education, since the two agencies are working closely together to coordinate educational planning and data tracking, Howard said. The move to a state-owned building would create more efficiencies and better working together, she told the board. Maryland has received national praise for its unilateral educational planning, and she said that putting both agencies under one roof would make that better.

Michael Gaines, the Department of General Services’ assistant secretary for real estate, said that even with a penalty for breaking the lease early, the commission’s move would save the state about $2.5 million over 10 years.

Franchot said he can understand the administrative need, but was confused about the state’s strategy – or lack of one – when it comes to placing agencies in rented or state-owned space. The Board of Public Works has recently approved big-ticket rental agreements for state agencies, including all of the departments planned to be moved into the State Center complex. Recently, O’Malley announced that the Department of Housing and Community Development would be moving from a state-owned facility in Crownsville to a rental property in New Carrollton. And this contract would move MHEC from a rental property into a state-owned one.

“Obviously, there’s a context for everything that comes forward,” Franchot said. “I don’t have it, and I don’t know what it is.”

Gaines and Collins said that there is a directive that they use to determine whether an agency is best renting space or in state-owned space, and staff members use that directive to determine what should be done with each individual agency and property. There is no one written master plan.

Franchot was frustrated.

“All I am asking for is an overview,” he said. “Everyone is saying, ‘It’s done on a case-by-case basis, and you don’t understand, Mr. Comptroller, what we are doing.’”

  • I often disagree with Comptroller Franchot. On this one, Comptroller Franchot is right.