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IG: Baltimore promotion office leaves banners up after expired contract, failing to collect more than $400,000

The Baltimore Office for Promotion and the Arts left banner advertisements on city poles for months after contracts expired last year and failed to collect more than $400,000, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General.

The city agency said in the report that it started investigating after receiving a complaint that banners attached to city-owned light poles along Pratt Street were being used for a company’s “commercial gain.”

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It learned the city Department of Transportation has a program to hang banners of both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. From January 2018 to July 2019, a for-profit company — not named in the report — installed a new set of banners. While the company previously had an agreement with the city, no agreement could be found regarding the new banners. It is “unknown” who installed the banners or whether fees were paid, the report issued Wednesday said.

The Baltimore Office for Promotion and the Arts also has a banner program that was developed around January 2020 but not implemented until that March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Revenue generated from the program is kept by BOPA and used for operational costs, the report said.

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The inspector general found that BOPA charges about 22.5 to 30 times more than DOT, whose rates initially run about $14 to $16 a month per pole for installation and equipment, before decreasing to $4 after six months. Additionally, there is no mention of a banner program in the city’s contract with BOPA and to keep the income, the city’s law department said, a separate agreement may need to be created.

In a response to the inspector general, BOPA CEO Donna Drew Sawyer wrote in a letter that the organization’s rates are higher because it is not privy to city equipment or insurance and must cover its expenses.

The same unnamed company that previously contracted for banners through DOT paid BOPA $21,000 to hang 116 banners along Pratt Street, Light Street and Key Highway from January to February 2020. But the report said BOPA allowed the company to keep its banners up for more than six months — at a market value of more than $142,000 — after the contract expired and didn’t collect further payment.

The inspector general found a similar situation with another unnamed company that paid more than $46,000 for 266 banners from September 2019 to February 2020. Those banners were left up for more than seven months after the contract expired. As with the other company, the report said, there was no renegotiation or extension of the agreement and BOPA did not collect the more than $300,000 value.

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BOPA officials told the inspector general that the banners were left up because of the pandemic. The officials said the vendor that removes the banners could not do so in February or March of last year, according to the report. However, the vendor told the inspector general’s office that beginning in April 2020 it could have performed any of the work requested.

BOPA said that by the time the vendor was available, COVID-19 had shuttered businesses, restaurants and workplaces in Baltimore, and they “did not want to remove the banners for aesthetic reasons.” The report said there were no other businesses lined up to replace the banners and BOPA said it did not have the money, estimated at around $9,000, to remove the banners.

“I made the practical decision to leave the banners in place until they could be safely deinstalled and we had the funds to cover the cost of the deinstallation, which we did as soon as we were able,” Sawyer wrote in the letter. “There was no cost to the city and negligible, if any, benefit to [the companies] since the city was under quarantine because of the health crisis.”

Sawyer said in the letter that the decisions were made for the “greater good” and that BOPA will coordinate with Baltimore’s city administrator to review the program, as the city transportation department does for its program.

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