March 1, 2012

Lawmaker wants AG ruling on secret feasibility study for agency move

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By Daniel Menefee
Dan@MarylandReporter.com

The feasibility study that justified a controversial plan to move the Housing Department headquarters from Crownsville to New Carrollton has been a well guarded secret since 2010.

Current headquarters for the Housing and Community Development Department

The Crownsville headquarters for the Housing and Community Development Department

Del. Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford, wants Attorney General Doug Gansler’s opinion on whether the study can be released.

“On behalf of all Marylanders we have a review responsibility and we are having trouble exercising it,” James said at a Health and Human Services Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

General Services Assistant Secretary Michael Gaines told the committee that negotiations were underway with the developer, Carl Williams, and that he was constrained to release any information until the negotiations were complete.

The study will be released when “an award is finally made and completed,” said Gaines.

Gaines said any documentation produced for the relocation is for negotiations with the developer and that any information beyond the taskforce’s recommendation was “confidential” under state regulations.  Gaines has been negotiating the relocation with the developer for at least six months.

Committee chair James was skeptical of Gaines’s interpretation of the rules of confidentiality and said she would seek the AG’s opinion. She was also skeptical that releasing the study now would harm negotiations with the developer.

“If there is a feasibility study, I assume it is not under seal.” James said. “If it’s not under seal, and it’s a public document, why wouldn’t we be able to see it?”

James agreed with Gaines that certain circumstances warrant confidentiality but questioned whether the secrecy of the study “puts a code of silence over the Department of General Services.” She said knowledge of the study would not necessarily affect bargaining with the developer on construction and time lines.

She said her committee had the right to review the decisions of the administration and “has a right on behalf of the public to determine whether the…decision was a correct one.”

The plan to move the Housing Department has been criticized by fiscal hawks and Anne Arundel County officials as a wasteful endeavor. It will move an agency from its state-owned headquarters, with annual operating costs of $1.7 million, to rented space that costs $3.6 million a year – nearly doubling the annual cost to house the agency.

Need for move is unclear

Department of Legislative Services Analyst Jaclyn Hartman told the committee Wednesday that any benefits of the move remain “unclear.”  A report she submitted to the committee questioned the need to move the DCHD at all.

The Housing Department “does work throughout the State and the location of the majority of people that benefit from its programs varies,” Hartman’s report said. “Regardless of where customers are located, [it] is not necessarily an agency where people need to stop in and take care of business. Operationally, there appears to be no benefit to relocating…to Prince George’s County.” She said the move also had no apparent benefits to employees of the agency, who would have longer commutes by car.

Hartman said statements from General Services of a net public benefit of $12 million were not verifiable.

“Documents supporting this assertion were not made available and cannot be verified,” Hartman’s report said.

Task force recommended move

At the urging of the Prince George’s delegation in 2009, the legislature set up a task force to study moving a state agency to Prince George’s County — since the county was the second largest in population and had no state agencies headquartered there. (The University System of Maryland and its flagship campus in College Park are not considered executive branch agencies. There are also no state agencies or main campuses headquartered in Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest jurisdiction.)

The task force chaired by Lt. Gov.  Anthony Brown, a former Prince George’s delegate,  recommended the move based on the task force’s findings, according to Housing Secretary Raymond Skinner, who also appeared before the committee.

“Did the task force do a cost-benefit analysis?” James asked. “Was there anything beyond the notion” that Prince George’s County was a large county without a state agency?

“I don’t believe there was any detailed economic cost-benefit analysis,” Skinner replied.

Del. Tony McConkey, R-Anne Arundel, asked Hartman after her presentation if withholding studies on state projects was a normal occurrence.

Hartman responded that it was not normal and she could only recall one other project where information was hard to get because of litigation.

“I’ve never really had this situation before.”