Baltimore City

City voters to decide whether to loosen oversight on purchases

As they cast ballots for governor, senator and other offices on Tuesday, Baltimore voters will also decide whether to allow city officials to make more purchases with less oversight.

The measure, which proponents say will increase efficiency, is one of three proposed changes to the city charter that will appear on Tuesday's ballot. Voters will also determine whether to create a fund for sustainability projects and whether to grant city officials wider latitude in how they spend surplus funds.

The changes to the purchasing procedures, listed as Question C on the ballot, would enable the City Council to raise the dollar amounts at which a purchase would require approval from the five-member Board of Estimates and at which contracts would be formally advertised.

At present, all purchases greater than $5,000 must be submitted to the spending board. Finance department officials are pushing the council to boost the threshold to $25,000, a move they say will streamline the process.

"This will free up our time to focus on the more expensive contracts where we can have more of an impact," said Joseph Mazza, acting chief of the city's bureau of purchases.

If the threshold is raised, contracts less than $25,000 would no longer require approval by the city's spending board or be published in its agenda.

Under the current rules, dozens of purchases under $25,000, including orders for police weapons, software, mechanical equipment, contraceptives and vaccines, appear on the board's agenda each week.

That agenda provides insight into city initiatives and practices — and occasionally raises eyebrows. In December, a $24,000 contract for uniforms for employees of the 311 call center prompted questions about why workers who answer the phone need uniforms.

If the measure is passed, city finance officials will likely seek the council's support to increase the threshold at which a contract requires formal advertisement from $25,000 to $50,000. If the council agrees, the contracts would still be listed on the purchasing department's website, but would not be advertised in newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun.

A proposal to raise the thresholds in 2007 by then-mayor Sheila Dixon provoked a public outcry. It was rejected by the council.

The current measure was introduced at the request of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in May and speeded to final passage in August. Nine of the 15 council members voted for the measure; those who opposed it expressed concern about loosening oversight of purchases.

The Baltimore Efficiency and Economy Foundation recommended the new levels in a 2008 report that found that finance officials spent more than one-fifth of their time advertising and analyzing bids for contracts less than $25,000.

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.

The other ballot questions also relate to the city's finances. Question A would repeal a decades-old rule that surplus funds may be used only to pay debt service on capital bonds.

This issue came to the forefront in 2009 when finance officials found nearly $40 million in an obscure account, but were prevented by the rule from using the funds to plug a hole in the city's budget.

Question B would authorize the city to create a fund for "promoting sustainability and a clean and safe environment." The measure was spearheaded by Councilman James B. Kraft, the council's most vocal member on environmental issues.

Kraft has stated that the fund would enable the proceeds from certain revenue sources — such as the plastic bag fee he has long advocated — to be dedicated to sustainability efforts.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said that she "has no position" on the sustainability fund, but that she backs Questions A and C.

Voters will also be asked to authorize the city to issue $100 million in bonds for work on schools, parks, storm drains, libraries and museums, among other projects.

Director of Planning Thomas J. Stosur said that the city cut its biannual bond request by $20 million from the 2008 ballot, because of the economic slump.

The bond money represents about 95 percent of the capital funds over which the city has some flexibility, Stosur said. The bonds will likely fund the construction of a new school in Waverly, a renovation and expansion at Leith Walk Elementary School in North Baltimore and redevelopment of the site of the former Somerset Homes public housing complex in Oldtown.

Other funds would be delegated for projects at museums and cultural centers including the Everyman Theatre, the National Aquarium, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Creative Alliance.

The Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, which recently presented a controversial proposal to cut down nearly all the trees in Mount Vernon Square and replace them with new trees watered by an irrigation system, is slated to receive $1 million of the bond money.

An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that If the city council raised the threshold at which proposed purchases must be submitted to the board of estimates to $25,000, contracts for less would no longer be advertised on the purchasing department's website. Those contracts would continue to be advertised online. The Sun regrets the error.