Pr. George's Mulls Nearly $1 Million Office Lease

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008

Prince George's County officials are considering a lease for 38,000 square feet of new office space for employees next year, a move that would transfer them out of a county-owned building and cost almost $1 million a year.

It would be part of a shift of government offices that would allow officials to move a highly trafficked permitting office from the sixth floor to the first floor of one building and consolidate two related Housing Department offices now in separate buildings.

The county is considering the lease as it faces an unprecedented budget shortfall, and some union officials question whether the new office space, in New Carrollton, is a necessity at a time when the government is otherwise tightening its belt. The Prince George's school board has also been criticized recently for its decision this year to lease a new $36 million headquarters.

All 5,900 county employees have been forced to take two weeks of unpaid leave this year to save money. And County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has warned lawmakers that next year's budget looks even worse and suggested that 400 to 500 employees might be laid off.

The decision to lease the space is not definite, Johnson spokesman James Keary said. Although the office has been identified and the lease terms negotiated, the move would require the approval of the County Council. The proposal could go to the council as soon as next month, but Johnson would first have to sign off on it, said Floyd Holt, deputy director of the Office of Central Services.

County officials said the office space proposal has been several years in the making, part of an overall assessment of how to efficiently arrange agencies. The county's main government office building is in Upper Marlboro. The proposed move would shift several agencies now in county-owned satellite buildings in Largo.

One goal of the proposal, Holt said, is to move a Department of Environmental Resources permitting office now on one Largo building's sixth floor to the first floor. The office is visited so frequently by the public that the building's elevators often break down, Holt said.

"They're not designed for that kind of up and down," he said.

The permitting office would displace the Department of Housing and Community Development Office, which would move to the new space in New Carrollton. Also moving there would be the county's Redevelopment Authority, now in a different Largo building.

"If there's any space remaining as we spread our wings, other county operations" will fill it, Holt said.

Holt said he looked at numerous possible locations for the new space before settling on office space connected to the newly renovated Four Points Sheraton Hotel in New Carrollton. At $26 a square foot -- or about $988,000 -- the hotel's owners offered a good price for prime space near a Metro station and the Capital Beltway, he said.

But union leaders say the county should be reducing such spending. They are already suing the county over furloughs, arguing in part that county spending priorities do not reflect the budget emergency that would allow county leaders to require them to take unpaid leave in violation of union contracts.

"Not taking anything away from the Housing Department, but when you're sitting and talking about furloughs, layoffs and additional budget cuts, we need to be saving every dime possible and not doing cosmetic changes just for the sake of convenience," said Vince Canales, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police.

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