Baltimore residents know they can phone the city's 311 call center to request alley cleanings, complain about noisy neighbors or inquire about a missed trash pickup. But what they might not know is that the employees who answer the telephone are garbed in matching attire paid for by taxpayers.
Last week, the city's Board of Estimates, its spending board, approved $24,000 to buy new uniforms for call center employees. The money will pay for polo shirts, slacks and sweaters or hooded sweat shirts for about 80 workers, officials said.
Workers are required to wear uniforms to "promote professionalism and consistency," Lisa Allen, the call center manager, wrote in an e-mail. "Baltimore is considered the flagship of 311 government call centers, therefore it is very important that we portray a professional appearance," she said, adding that visiting officials from other areas and even foreign dignitaries often tour the call center.
But given the city's grim finances - officials recently announced that $127 million must be slashed from next year's budget and have suggested raising property taxes - the practice of buying clothing for workers who primarily answer the phone leaves some scratching their heads.
"Usually the justification for giving a uniform to a municipal employee is that they're out in public and need to be easily recognized by the public," said Matthew A. Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "People probably tour the incinerator and the schools and a whole bunch of other places. I don't see why visitors should be put off by the fact that the staff of the call centers are wearing street clothes."
Baltimore became the first city in the nation to open a 311 call center in 1996 in an attempt to relieve 911 dispatchers of non-emergency calls. Since then, the practice has been emulated elsewhere.
The spending comes as officials are scouring the budget amid the most profound fiscal crisis in years. High unemployment and sluggish home sales have caused a significant drop in tax revenue. The state, coping with its own budget woes, withdrew $50 million in funding to the city for the current budget year.
In a series of sweeping cuts to the city's $2.3 billion budget, officials laid off more than two dozen employees, instituted furlough days, cut back trash pickups and launched a controversial program of rolling closures of fire stations. Many capital projects have been put on hold and a hiring freeze has been in place for the past two years. As part of the reductions, the call center's night shift was curtailed.
The recent layoffs and budget cuts must shape the way city leaders view every expense, said City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
"We have to look at every expenditure from the perspective of layoffs," she said. "Is this expenditure more important than a city worker's job? Is it more important than a fire company?"
The cost of the uniforms was buried deep in 90 pages of measures approved by the spending board last week without detailed public discussion. Mayor Sheila Dixon heads the board and Rawlings-Blake is among the members.
Rawlings-Blake said she didn't see the need to "micro-manage every agency's expenditures."
A spokesman for Dixon referred questions about the uniforms to Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty, who said call center employees are "a pretty professional group" who wear uniforms as part of their commitment to high standards of "discipline and consistency."
Donald Norris, a public policy professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the uniforms were likely a "morale booster." In light of the city's budget issues, the cost of the uniforms amounts to "just paper clips," he said.