The Baltimore Housing Authority may have violated federal purchasing procedures in its rush to install computer-operated, steel turnstiles in the city's 18 public housing high-rises, local officials of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said yesterday.
Bill Tamburrino, director of public housing for the Baltimore HUD office, said the Housing Authority may have failed to conduct competitive bidding for the turnstiles or to submit to a HUD review of all purchases over $150,000, as required by HUD regulations.
The Housing Authority of Baltimore City unveiled the plan to purchase the turnstiles last fall. Housing Authority officials described acquisition of the turnstiles as a desperate attempt to protect the high-rise residents.
But many residents have been among the most vocal critics of the controversial devices and various local officials have questioned their installation.
The turnstiles -- which cost more that $350,000 -- were purchased with money from a 1990 federal drug-elimination grant.
Mr. Tamburrino said the Housing Authority had a Jan. 18, 1993, deadline to spend the money or it would have been recaptured by HUD.
"I would attribute [the installation] largely to the fact that the money had to be spent," Mr. Tamburrino said.
"They appear to have purchased these hastily."
Danise Jones-Dorsey, interim deputy executive director of the Housing Authority, said yesterday she could not comment on the HUD investigation because her agency had not been notified about it.
The turnstiles were installed at the order of then-Housing Authority Police Chief William Matthews, who called them a last-ditch attempt at security in the high-rises.
Mr. Matthews resigned in December to take another security job in Washington.
The Housing Authority had originally planned to pay for the turnstiles with operating funds, Mr. Tamburrino said.
Yet, authority officials transferred the funding to the drug-elimination grant in 1991 after repeated warnings from local HUD officials that the grant could expire before it was spent, Mr. Tamburrino said.
In October 1991, the local HUD office cautioned the Housing Authority against installing turnstiles in all of the high-rises, said Unabyrd Jones, a local HUD official.
Instead, Ms. Jones said, she advised Mr. Matthews to erect one sample turnstile in a family high-rise and one in a high-rise for the elderly as a three-month trial to see if the device was functional to the residents.
Ms. Jones also said she asked the Housing Authority to solicit written comments from residents about the turnstiles.
But the sample turnstiles and the written comments never materialized, she said.
The turnstiles are expected to become operational in the high-rises in mid-February, with residents using plastic computer coded cards to pass through them.
Controversy has dogged the turnstiles since the Housing Authority began erecting them. For example:
* Last November, vandals smashed a turnstile that was being installed in a high-rise in Lafayette Courts, an East Baltimore public housing complex. One resident looked at the heap of twisted steel, and said: "I can't believe it's been up this long. It's a waste of money."
* Some high-rise residents say the devices make them feel like "cattle" and complain that a stroller, wheelchair or ambulance stretcher can't pass through them.
* Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said last week that the turnstiles will be evaluated for their effectiveness after the Housing Authority hires a new security chief.
* City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said the turnstiles are a detriment in the public housing high-rises and "will make very nice scrap metal." Her comments came last weekend, after after she spent a night at Lexington Terrace and viewed the blighted conditions there.
* City Councilman Melvin Stukes, D-6th, called the turnstiles "a joke" with a $373,787 price tag. He said the turnstiles may soon go "down the drain."
"I know these are something the tenants don't want," Mr. Stukes said.
"It is quite amazing that something as big as those turnstiles could go in without checking for emergency entrance and exits. To me, someone did not do their job."
Lorraine Ledbetter, president of the Lexington-Poe tenants council, said the turnstiles create a safety hazard because stretchers cannot pass through them.
As a result, she said, paramedics must look for other ways to get sick or injured people out the buildings.
Lexington Terrace resident Carol Wilson was stricken by an asthma attack in her eighth-floor apartment Saturday.
She said paramedics couldn't get her through the turnstile on a stretcher, and it took 20 extra minutes to get her out of the building's rear exit.
"It was embarrassing. I was frustrated and I was having a hard time breathing," Ms. Wilson recalled.