WASHINGTON – Maryland lawmakers vowed Tuesday to preserve funding for a Food and Drug Administration complex at White Oak, after President Bush failed to include construction funds for the project in his fiscal 2004 budget.
White House officials conceded that there is no money specifically set aside for construction of the Montgomery County project — but noted that there was also no construction funding in the fiscal 2003 budget. Congress stepped in then and proposed a minimum of $25.5 million for White Oak construction in fiscal 2003.
The White House’s fiscal 2004 budget includes $6 million for costs related to the FDA project, up from $4 million the administration budgeted for the same purpose in fiscal 2003.
Despite that slight increase, however, local lawmakers were taking no chances with the project this week.
Five members of the state’s congressional delegation wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson on Tuesday, urging him to fight for funding in this year’s budget and to make a long-term commitment to the project.
“This is not just another building project but a national priority,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter was signed by Maryland Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski and Reps. Steny Hoyer of Mechanicsville, Al Wynn of Mitchellville and Chris Van Hollen of Kensington. All are Democrats.
The $760 million project aims to bring together all of the FDA’s drug- related divisions, which are currently scattered throughout Maryland. Officials broke ground in 2000 at White Oak, a former naval warfare facility, and hope to have building on the campus finished by 2008.
White Oak is part of a larger consolidation that included construction of two other facilities in Prince George’s County, where the FDA is pulling together its food safety operations. Currently, the FDA houses about 6,000 employees in 48 buildings in 22 different locations around Washington.
“The goal is to consolidate,” said FDA spokeswoman Kathleen Kolar. “Not only does that help with communication, it saves a lot of money.”
Advocates estimate the facility could save the government $32 million a year in leases. The consolidation is also expected to modernize FDA operations.
“Some of the (current FDA) buildings are OK, but some are so crappy, I wouldn’t let my kids in them,” said Betsy Bretz of Labquest, a neighborhood group involved with the White Oak project.
The government has spent $146 million on design and construction at White Oak and about $276 million on the whole consolidation project, which includes the Prince George’s facilities.
Congress is still wrangling over funding for the White Oak project in this year’s budget. The House has called for $45.5 million in fiscal 2003, while the Senate has budgeted $25.5 million.
The two chambers are expected to work out a final fiscal 2003 budget in the next few weeks.
But area lawmakers are already looking to the fiscal 2004. Milkulski said she had “grave concerns” about the lack of funding in the president’ plan.
“At a time when we are fighting the war on terrorism, making sure our food and drug supplies are safe is vitally important,” she said.