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Suddenly, Balto. Co. wants cut of the action Blind vendor at jail fighting to keep business.


Bill Ramsey, a 52-year-old legally blind vendor from East Baltimore, says he worked hard over the last eight years selling soap, cigarettes and other supplies to roughly 850 inmates at the Baltimore County Detention Center.

Under a special state program for the blind, Mr. Ramsey is allowed to operate his jail-house commissary rent-free and with no competition. He employs four sighted workers and says he manages to gross about $30,000 a year after expenses.

But the sheriff and the county executive are planning to seek bids from private vendors who would operate the commissary and pay the county a commission. Mr. Ramsey contends that paying such a commission would put him out of business.

"I built the business up," he says. "When it was low, nobody wanted it. Now that they see me making a living off it, they want to take it away from me."

But Sheriff Norman Pepersack and Warden James Dean say they are not excluding Mr. Ramsey from the bidding. They simply want whoever is going to operate the commissary to pay a percentage of the profits to the county.

Mr. Dean says a private vending company estimated that, based on current commissary sales of $350,000, the county could net about $50,000 a year in commissions.

The money could be spent on recreation equipment, television sets, video cassette recorders, movie rentals and other extras for inmates that are now funded through the sheriff department's budget.

In addition, the 14 x 14-foot room that Mr. Ramsey uses for free to store his products -- mostly cigarettes, snack foods, shampoo and other items -- would be returned to the county, giving more space to the overcrowded detention center. The wining bidder would be required to provide its own facility, outside the jail, to store the commissary's products.

Mr. Dean said the staff at the detention center now keeps accounts for inmates of how much they spend at the commissary, deducts money from their accounts, takes orders for supplies and delivers the products to inmates' jail cells. So "we should have some commissions coming back," he said. "And we should have the storage space we need so badly.All these services we provide [for Mr. Ramsey], and we get nothing back."

Sheriff Pepersack told the County Council at a budget meeting last week that the proposal to contract-out commissary services would be more efficient and in line with County Executive Roger B. Hayden's hard-nosed business approach to managing county government.

"It's one of those things we're looking at to privatize," said Mereen Kelly, the county administrative officer. "It's an area where we think we can earn $40,000 to $50,000 a year."

Although the sheriff and the warden say Mr. Ramsey could submit his own competitive bid, a state official said the law that regulates this program wouldn't allow it. And Mr. Ramsey said he couldn't afford to pay commissions to the county. "I don't make that much," he said.

Thomas Mumey, a staff specialist with the state vending program for the blind, said Mr. Ramsey is one of 82 blind vendors operating in state, federal and local public buildings throughout Maryland. Last year, they generated some $640,000 in state sales tax alone, he said.

Robert Burns, another state official who works with the blind vendors, said he's tried to arrange a meeting with County Executive Roger Hayden and other county officials to plead Mr. Ramsey's case. But the meeting has not been scheduled yet.

"The question is, " said Mr. Burns, "does Baltimore County feel that $40,000 or $50,000 a year in revenue . . . would offset the loss of the blind businessman's employment?"

"These guys [blind vendors] are earning money and paying taxes," Mr. Burns added, "instead of sitting at home and collecting benefits."

But Mr. Kelly said, "this is one of those tough decisions we have to make."

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