Amid layoffs, city paying for private housing patrols

Security firm hired, public officers let go

March 01, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City continues to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on private security at one senior high-rise building in the city, even while the cash-strapped agency is laying off police officers charged with patrolling public housing sites.

The extensive security arrangement at the 203-unit Rosemont Towers elderly high-rise at 740 Poplar Grove St. is the last remnant of an old housing authority practice of paying private firms to patrol public housing developments.

Former Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III hired Solidarity Security and Investigations Inc. in early 1999 to provide guards 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the building and in the surrounding blocks - the only public housing site in the city that receives private security.

The housing authority is paying for around-the-clock security there - 10 guards on each of three shifts - potentially costing as much as $900,000 a year, or more. Housing authority officials declined yesterday to provide financial details or to further explain the arrangement.

An authority spokesman did say that the agency renewed the year-to-year contract last spring - at a time when the federally funded agency knew it was facing a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, was not filling job vacancies and was searching for ways to cut spending.

The authority, funded mostly by the federal government, is laying off at least eight police officers. The authority's new executive director, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, issued a memorandum last month announcing the layoffs, saying the authority needed to wipe out this year's $7 million shortfall by the beginning of this month.

The decision to lay off officers is drawing criticism from local leaders, including City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, an East Baltimore Democrat who has asked Graziano and Housing Authority Police Chief Hezekiah Bunch to answer questions about the reductions at a City Council committee hearing at 7 p.m. tonight at City Hall.

"We want to know the impact that it's going to have on policing in Baltimore City," Young said yesterday, arguing that more police are needed near public housing sites, not fewer. "When we talk about reducing the murder rate and the crime rate in Baltimore City and we lay off police officers, to me it sends a bad signal to the people of Baltimore City."

Possible layoffs of housing authority police officers have been discussed for months, in the face of budget shortfalls and the demolition of the city's four public housing high-rises, which the officers patrolled.

The circumstances of the arrangement with Solidarity Security - which now operates under the corporate name Nations Security Inc. - are unclear.

Henson could not be reached for comment, and Graziano and Bunch declined to comment yesterday, saying through a spokesman that they wanted to wait until tonight's council hearing to address questions.

Young said he was "dumbfounded" when told yesterday that the authority was also paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for security at Rosemont.

"I'm going to ask questions about how they're spending their money ... if we're actually laying off officers," he said.

Nations Security Inc. employees said yesterday that their job is mainly to help seniors living in the building and to be a visible presence in an area known to have problems with crime and drugs.

Housing authority officials declined to answer questions about why it wants such security at only one site with crime problems.

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