Referendum would give city more spending latitude

Council approves charter amendment to raise thresholds

August 09, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore voters will decide in November whether to allow city officials to make more purchases without a public announcement.

Under the charter amendment, which was approved by a 9-6 vote of the City Council on Monday evening, expenses less than $25,000 would no longer require approval from the Board of Estimates. Currently, all expenditures greater than $5,000 require spending board approval.

The measure, which was introduced at the request of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, would also change the threshold at which city contracts would have to be advertised. The amount would be determined by the council at a later date. That would mean the city could award some contracts without initiating a competitive bid process.

Councilman James B. Kraft, who voted in support of the measure, said that the city's procurement process has not been updated since the mid-1980s.

"These outdated thresholds drive up the cost to the city," said Kraft.

The higher levels were recommended in 2008 by the Baltimore Efficiency and Economy Foundation, which found that finance officials spent a great deal of time advertising contracts and analyzing bids for relatively small amounts of money.

The foundation, which prepared its report in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, also found that Baltimore's thresholds for public announcement were lower than those of surrounding jurisdictions and cities in other states.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, one of six members — including Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young — who voted against the bill, said expenses between $5,000 to $25,000 did not amount to "needles and pins," but a significant portion of the city's expenditures.

All expenditures pending the spending board's approval are published in a public document. Dozens of expenses less than $25,000 — ranging from mowing contracts to flu vaccines — appear in the agenda each week.

Clarke also criticized the bill for not specifying a new level at which contracts would be required to be announced.

"I could have lived with higher numbers, but not without any numbers at all," said Clarke.

The measures will appear as a referendum on the Novermber ballot.

Also Monday night, the council unanimously backed minor changes to a controversial overhaul of the police and fire pension system that was approved in June.

The revisions will allow an additional 400 public safety workers to be grandfathered under the previous pension standards, said Councilwoman Helen L. Holton.

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