Our Absent-minded Municipality

April 19, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

It happens to the best of us.

Just the other day, I put on a jacket I hadn't worn since last spring and - bonus! - there was $5.31 in one of the pockets. Found money - maybe enough to super size my order at McDonald's.

So I'm trying to be fair and not get all "Whaaa?" over how Baltimore City somehow found nearly $40 million that was sitting around in some forgotten bank account for the past decade.

Like I said, it happens: $5.31 in one pocket, a subway farecard with 15 cents left on it in another, and soon you're talking some real money.

The city's explanation last week was less than reassuring: Apparently, partial tax payments were deposited into some sort of holding account and were supposed to be transferred at a later point into the city's operating budget - but weren't. It was one of those explanations that begged more questions: Why did the payments have to make a preliminary stop before heading to the city coffers? Was the money just sitting there, or was it at least earning interest? Didn't the bank send statements, or had someone been talked into a paperless option that sent them to some address like noreply@baltimorecity.gov?

And, not to ask the obvious question, but: How on earth do you not miss $40 million?

Even as the thought bubble over my head keeps flashing question marks, I thought I'd try to be constructive. I should try to help an obviously overwhelmed city keep track of stuff that's just lying around, somewhere. Is there more money out there, maybe some items checked at a city function that never were claimed, perhaps some misplaced Accounting for Dummies books?

I went to that final resting place of forgotten flotsam and jetsam - the Maryland Comptroller's Unclaimed Property Unit. That's where, say, the contents of your late grandmother's old safety deposit box ends up after the bank realizes no one has paid its rent for three years. The comptroller hangs on to it, tries to find any relatives who might have a claim to it and, if unsuccessful and the storage space for such items gets too full, auctions it off on eBay.

The bulk of unclaimed property, though, is some kind of paper - stock or life insurance dividends, uncashed checks, a dormant bank account and the like, according to the office.

The unit's Web site can be searched by plugging in a name. Trying "City" as a last name, there were 73 bits of unclaimed properties belonging to everyone from an Ellen City to a Citywide Security Services. In between, there were five something or others belonging to the City of Baltimore, as well as something for the City Law Department and City Circuit Court.

Baltimore wasn't the only city to lose track of some belonging or other - the cities of Corinth, Crisfield, Hagerstown, Seat Pleasant, and St. Mary's also have some unclaimed property that the comptroller will turn over if only they fill out claim form ST-912 and provide documentation verifying their identities.

Plugging in "Baltimore" as a last name, I found even more public property - there is stuff belonging to Baltimore City Public Schools, its Service Commission (maybe that's the Civil Service Commission?) and the Fire Department. The 425 items listed as belonging to various "Baltimore"-named entities were particularly amusing - everyone from the Orioles to the Ravens has some unclaimed items. (So that's where Kyle Boller's untapped potential was all along.)

Even The Baltimore Sun has some stuff over there, and in fact, the local media seem particularly absent-minded about their belongings: Baltimore Magazine, Jewish Times, City Paper and the Afro-American all have unclaimed property. Which of course got me thinking, hmmm, what about our friends on TV (yup, stuff for WBAL, WJZ and Fox News Channel, but not WMAR) and on the radio (nothing for WYPR, but something for its predecessor WJHU).

It's hard to know if the city has some big checks or merely some chipped Hummel figurines in the comptroller's storage room. (The comptroller's office can't provide dollar amount values of unclaimed property to anyone other than the claimant, said Joseph Shapiro, a spokesman.)

There's a dormant checking account or some kind of cash for the city that the state of Utah is holding, said Shapiro, who had the unclaimed property unit research what the city might have coming to it.

Then there something that the city may be too late to claim at this point: a refund or rebate from IndyMac, the big S&L that collapsed last year. There were also some other refunds or rebates due to the city from Xerox, Snap On Equipment, Consol Energy and the Bureau of National Affairs.

In the end, still trying to be fair here, I guess we can take comfort that the lost and now found 40 mill seems like the result of an honest mistake. We're all human, etc. The title of Most Baffling Case of Municipal Millions Gone Missing and Unnoticed still belongs to Washington, where a midlevel manager in the city's tax office was able to spirit away nearly $50 million over the course of two decades before the embezzlement came to light. And the culprit was someone who swathed herself in Chanel and Choo - on a government salary - and allegedly even kept a jar of $20 bills on her desk for her co-workers the way others may keep a candy dish.

So, yes, it happens: Stuff hiding in plain sight can get overlooked.

Not to say that it should.

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