Baltimore needs more watchdogs

In a city that's perpetually looking to cut costs rather than add them, Baltimore Inspector General David McClintock is making a strong case for himself. The independent city watchdog reports that his office detected $1.6 million in waste, fraud and abuse during the 12 months that ended Aug. 20. That's a savings of three times his office's annual budget. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who hired Mr. McClintock, already authorized two new employees for the office this year, and given its track record, she should add more.

But as encouraging as Mr. McClintock's results are, they are a mere hint of the value the city could see from applying independent eyes to a broader evaluation of its operations. Mr. McClintock's job calls for him to investigate cases of people breaking laws or regulations or otherwise defrauding the city. His biggest wins last year, for example, included busting an employee who was stealing diesel fuel and selling it to truckers, discovering a vendor who was charging the city nearly 150 times too much for air filters, and rooting out the case of a Department of Public Works employee who was falsely billing the city for overtime. Pursuing those cases is vital to ensuring the integrity of city employees and contractors, but it makes at most a tiny dent in Baltimore's budget problems.

What the city needs, in addition to Mr. McClintock's focus on fraud and waste, is a greater effort to find inefficiency. That task is part of the mission of the Baltimore City auditor, who reports to the city comptroller, but the office's primary purpose — as mandated by law — is to reconcile the books of the city, its retirement funds and some other institutions. That is obviously necessary, but it leaves less room for evaluating the performance and effectiveness of city agencies than Baltimore could use. More staff in that office could help, but it might make better sense to copy the example of other governments in the area and give the City Council more resources to fulfill its role as a fiscal watchdog.

Over the years, some council members, including current Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young have floated the idea of hiring experts to help the council evaluate the mayor's budget proposals and otherwise monitor the performance of city agencies. Mr. Young has an open position in the Office of Council Services, and his spokesman says he is looking to bring in a budget expert before the mayor releases her spending proposal next spring. That's a good start, but a greater investment in this area could pay real dividends. As it is, there is a mismatch of information between the executive and legislative branches at budget time. The mayor presents the council with a document hundreds of pages long, and the council members largely have to take the finance department's analysis at face value, which is why they often vote not to make any cuts to the budget whatsoever.

That's not how it works in other area governments. The state, for example, has a Department of Legislative Audits, which acts as something of a souped-up version of Baltimore's inspector general, but the General Assembly also employs a cadre of analysts who comb through the governor's spending proposals and suggest ways to save money in state agency budgets. That gives legislators (and the public) the benefit of a second, expert point of view on what the government does. Not all of its recommendations for spending cuts are adopted, but the Department of Legislative Services more than pays for itself.

On the local level, the councils in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties all employ auditors. To some extent, their duties overlap with the kind of work Baltimore's Office of the Inspector General does, but they also serve a broader role in keeping watch over those jurisdictions' finances. In Baltimore County, for example, the auditor helps the council evaluate the executive's budget, but it also performs operational and performance reviews of county agencies. The Howard County auditor is required to present an annual audit report of every county agency's finances, but it can also conduct managerial audits at the council's direction or its discretion. The Anne Arundel County auditor is charged, among other things, with evaluating effectiveness and efficiency of county agencies.

Baltimore officials said this week that they anticipate yet another tough budget in which they will be forced to make cuts. That doesn't make it easy to argue for adding new positions anywhere. But just as Mr. McClintock has saved the city well more than he has cost it, better independent analysis of city agencies' operations could help Baltimore save money without reducing the services its residents rely on. That's a worthwhile investment in good times or bad.

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