Phony 'fixes' inflate 311 system record

Complaints: Of 50 problems phoned in by The Sun to Baltimore's response system, 26 went unresolved. Of those, nearly one-third were falsely reported fixed by city workers.

February 04, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A mountain of junk blocks an alley behind Van Brooks' house in West Baltimore - three refrigerators, five televisions, a washing machine, baby crib and lounge chair - nurturing a small ecosystem of rats, cats and insects.

Two months ago, a driver asked the city to clear the alley. He called 311, the number that Mayor Martin O'Malley began advertising a year ago as the taxpayers' "One Call to City Hall" for nonemergency services. A city worker told his bosses on Dec. 30 that he had hauled away the junk, cleared the alley and "taken care of" the problem.

But the report submitted to O'Malley's computerized CitiStat data analysis system was itself garbage. In reality, nothing had been done.

"I'm angry about this. The trash trucks drive right by, but they don't touch this stuff," said Brooks, a 42-year-old longshoreman whose rowhouse is in the 1900 block of W. Franklin St.

The Sun tested the 311 and CitiStat systems in late November, phoning in 50 problems from around town and documenting the responses.

City workers fixed 24 of them, 48 percent, within 60 days.

More troubling was that in almost a third of the cases in which laborers failed to remedy the problems (eight of 26), they falsely reported to their bosses and the CitiStat system - which guides O'Malley's management of the city - that they had performed the work, according to photographs and observations by The Sun.

The implication is that the CitiStat system in general might be exaggerating the speed with which the city is solving problems.

O'Malley said he was disturbed to see the pictures of work not performed. And he ordered an investigation of four suspicious reports, including the one describing the cleaning of the alley behind Brooks' home, and three for graffiti removals that never happened.

`Somebody lied'

"Clearly, someone has some explaining to do. Somebody lied to us on this one," O'Malley said, looking at Sun photographs of Brooks' alley, which show the same refrigerators in the same positions on Nov. 21 and Jan. 27, despite a city report saying the site was cleared Dec. 30. "We agree that this is a problem: They said they did things that they didn't do."

The mayor said he would speak to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which the city relies upon to fix about 80 percent of its broken streetlights, to try to figure out why four lights that the utility reported to CitiStat as repaired showed up in photographs as continuing to be nonfunctional.

"Some of these look suspicious," Matthew D. Gallagher, director of operations for CitiStat, said of the problems attributed to city workers. "If someone did a phantom abatement, they are going to be held responsible for that. We will take appropriate action."

Despite these few examples of what might be false reports, O'Malley said the larger picture is that the 311 system is working well to improve the speed and efficiency of city services.

He produced a chart showing that city workers are closing a growing number of service requests: 3,485 in December, compared with 3,054 in September and 1,886 in January last year.

But the mayor's numbers aren't as clear as they might seem. Workers sometimes submit case "closed" reports to CitiStat not when they've solved a problem but when they have taken only the first step toward a possible solution.

For example, the mayor's figures assert that BGE - which is linked into the city's 311 system - "closed" 849 requests to repair streetlights in December and 1,054 requests in November. But that doesn't mean the utility has fixed this number of lights. In many cases, "closed" on the CitiStat computer screen means only that BGE has issued an internal work order that has not been acted upon, according to city officials.

"I never promised perfection, but I did promise progress, and we now have a system in place that allows us to make progress in the most basic requests for service," O'Malley said. "I don't think any of us is satisfied with the accuracy and timeliness of the information we receive. But we are getting better information this year than last, and we will get better next year."

Linda Foy, a BGE spokeswoman, said she was not aware of any problem with BGE's reporting of light repairs.

She could not explain why streetlights that were out Nov. 21 and were still not functioning two months later would show up as repaired and working in reports submitted to the CitiStat system.

She guessed that the lights might have been fixed and then failed again. "Anything could happen in two months." she said. "Someone could walk by and kick the lamppost, and that could take the lights out."

The Sun's survey was conducted Nov. 21 through Jan. 27. A reporter and a photographer drove around four neighborhoods -- downtown, poor sections of East and West Baltimore, and a middle-class section of Northeast -- and photographed and documented 50 minor problems. These included potholes, graffiti in public places, illegal dumping and abandoned cars.

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