Time to micromanage

Our view: The approval without question of $24,000 to buy uniforms for city 311 call center employees shows Baltimore needs some stronger fiscal watchdogs

December 15, 2009

It's plenty bad at a time when the city is laying off employees and closing firehouses that the manager of Baltimore's 311 center, Lisa Allen, would think that her 80 workers needed matching polo shirts, slacks and sweaters or hooded sweat shirts - to the tune of $24,000. According to Ms. Allen, the uniforms are necessary to "promote professionalism and consistency" and to impress the officials from other cities who stop by the 311 call center. Here's guessing that impressing visiting dignitaries isn't at the top of the 311 center's mission statement and wouldn't make anybody's list for the city's top priorities.

What's worse is that the item went through the Board of Estimates last week with no discussion whatsoever, approved along with 90 pages of other items. This is typical of scores of items that are voted on every week by what is supposed to be the city's fiscal watchdog. The closest we got to an explanation for how an expenditure of such dubious worth could sneak through at a time of fiscal distress came from City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who chairs the board; she said she didn't see the need to "micromanage every agency's expenditures."

First, the city is facing a budget shortfall of $130 million or more next year. Now is, in fact, the time to micromanage.

And second, what else is the point of the Board of Estimates? It and its analogue at the state level, the Board of Public Works, are designed to provide an extra check on spending. Their existence forces nearly all government contracts to be subject to scrutiny and a vote - so that bad decisions like this one aren't made.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake showed some guts in the spring when she challenged Mayor Sheila Dixon's budget - something the City Council rarely does - and proposed cuts to programs of questionable value in order to save funding for more important matters, like after-school programs for troubled kids. Now's the time for her to show that kind of leadership again by using her role to sharply scrutinize city expenditures.

It is, of course, unfair to pick on Ms. Rawlings-Blake alone. Mayor Sheila Dixon controls three votes on the board, and Comptroller Joan Pratt has the fifth. None of them voted against it. Even worse, the Dixon administration is still defending the expenditure. Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty said the employees wear the uniforms as part of their standards of "discipline and consistency." Ms. Allen notes that Baltimore created the nation's first 311 center and has a reputation for professionalism to uphold. Of course, the development of that reputation was evidently unhindered by the previous lack of uniforms.

How could something like this slide through unremarked upon by the members of the board? Part of the reason may be the scant description each item on the board's agenda receives. This one appeared on page 75 of the agenda in a list of "informal awards, renewals, increases to contracts and extensions." Some of them have substantive explanations of the purpose of a contract, details of the award and the bidding history, but most, like the uniforms, are accompanied by scant information.

"Solicitation No. 07000 - Uniforms for 311 Center - Mayor's Office of Information Technology - Req. No. R536927" could have been enough to pique someone's interest, but more description surely would have helped. It also raises the question of what all the other contracts listed next to it are for. "Inlet heads" for $14,100 or "Hitachi variable frequency drives" for $14,154 might be crucial, or they might not. There's no way to know from the information presented.

Would shaving off $24,000 here or there make a difference in the scheme of a $2.2 billion budget or a $130 million shortfall? Every little bit helps. Saving $24,000 is more than enough to stop the rolling firehouse closures for a night. Were there more questionable expenditures in those 90 pages that were approved without a second thought? We'll never know, unless someone starts doing a little micromanaging.

Readers respond
This is one stupid expenditure. How poorly are the call center employees dressing that the manager is apparently ashamed of them when visitors are touring the center? Perhaps a dress code would be in order, not an expenditure of city funds on clothing.

Mar

I see no problem with the city spending money on uniforms for these employees. It helps with cohesion and singleness of purpose, i.e., serving the citizens.

Sean Tully

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