Bill Ramsey, 52, a 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."
But Sheriff Norman Pepersack and Warden James Dean say they are not excluding Mr. Ramsey from the bidding. They simply want a percentage of the profits for 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 and other extras for inmates that are now funded by the sheriff's department.
In addition, the 14 x 14-foot room that Mr. Ramsey uses for free to store his products would be returned to the county, giving more space to the overcrowded detention center.
The winning bidder would be required to provide its own storage facility outside the jail.
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.
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.