It's a half-million-dollar monument to government waste on wheels.
Nearly a year after the city bought a $555,515 crane in a rush to crush vacant houses, the gleaming Link Belt squats idle on a hill.
The city can't find anyone to run it. So for the past nine months, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration has paid tens of thousands of dollars renting cranes from private companies to do the Link Belt's work.
Heralded as the newest weapon in Baltimore's attack on blighted housing, the crane has become a vivid symbol of the city's misfires.
"It's just sitting there," said Ronald Reuwer, a city crane operator who retired shortly after the machine's arrival. "It's such a waste. Such a waste."
These days, the 50-ton crane gathers sun in a city yard, its chrome muffler sparkling, its Goodyear tires unturned, its engine silent.
In its 11 months in business, it has been used three times.
The crane's easy days belie the sense of urgency to buy it.
"We haven't had a crane for several years," Public Works Director George G. Balog told his Board of Estimates colleagues as they prepared to approve the purchase in November 1995.
"It's long overdue."
"Do we have anybody that knows how to drive it?" Balog was asked.
"Absolutely," he replied.
Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III was among the city officials pushing for the crane in 1995, promising that communities would "see the pace quicken" on demolitions with its help.
But two months after the crane was delivered, the two city employees trained to operate it took early retirement.
"That's our problem -- we don't have the operators," said Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher. "We're doing everything we can to get it up and running."
Public Works runs the crane at the behest of the Department of Housing and Community Development, which is charged with shoring up or toppling Baltimore's estimated 40,000 vacant and decaying properties.
With residents fleeing, Baltimore faces the prospect of more vacant houses -- and more demolitions. Just Thursday, Henson said he wants "to get rid of 16,000 houses over the next five or six years."
Later, a spokesman said Henson was speaking of 16,000 vacant houses that would be either demolished or rehabilitated and sold.
Two demolition methods
Henson's agency uses two methods for demolition. Sometimes, it gets bids from contractors for the entire job -- razing, cleanup of debris and repair of the adjoining rowhouse walls.
Other times, it asks Balog's department to send out its own crews to do the work. With its crane inactive, the city turns to a contractor for the crane work while using city workers for the rest of the job.
Most often, the crane work falls to Potts & Callahan, a Baltimore wrecker with a fleet of cranes and dozers.
Company officials declined to discuss their work for the city.
High cost of renting
Asked more than a week ago for the cost to rent private cranes, Henson's housing department said Friday that the information was still being compiled.
A Sun estimate pegs the figure at more than $100,000 to demolish 200 houses since May. The estimate is based on a review of public records and case studies.
In January 1995, for instance, the city paid more than $1,000 to rent a Potts & Callahan crane to demolish two houses on Walbrook Avenue.
For the crane, controversy isn't new. Before the city bought it, there was a ripple of protest.
On Nov. 22, 1995, demolition contractors Pless B. Jones and Randolph Phipps sent a spokesman to the Board of Estimates to discuss the crane.
Their companies -- P & J Contracting Co. Inc. and Phipps Construction Contractors Inc. -- have received the largest share of housing demolition contracts in the past few years, a Sun analysis found.
"What they are concerned about is that the demolition contracting area is a large portion of their revenues," Arnold Jolivet, president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, told the board.
"So all I am asking is the board continue to give them an opportunity to come and be heard, give evidence as to how this can impact on their business."
'Everything is resolved'
The board held off voting -- despite Balog's plea for immediate approval of the purchase.
A week later, Jolivet was back, saying he had met with Henson. "Everything is resolved," he told the panel.
"What does that mean?" Jolivet was asked.
"Well, he [Henson] indicated there was no desire nor intent to take away contemplated contracts that would be put in the bidding system, and the crane is more or less just being purchased for exigency purposes -- when we have a fire and stuff like that," Jolivet responded.
"But we are not going to lose any work," he added.
With that, the board approved the $555,515 purchase and the crane arrived last May 2.
Five buildings razed
On May 8, May 30 and July 9, it went to work -- demolishing a total of five buildings.
"That crane -- it does the job," said one of the retired operators, Albert Thompson. "Every day they needed a crane, it would be ready to go."
The two operators retired the last week of July.
"We were taken by surprise when we lost the crane operators," spokesman Kocher said. But Reuwer, the other retiree, said he gave notice more than a month before departing.
Public Works found it had no one left on the payroll qualified to operate the crane. So, the agency asked the Civil Service Commission to seek operators.
The result: a single application -- from a candidate who didn't meet the qualifications.
Kocher and others suspect a salary range of about $11 to $13 an hour wasn't enough to attract a qualified candidate.
"That's not realistic to pay that kind of money for the skill level they're seeking," said James R. "Ron" DeJuliis, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 37. "It's a dangerous job. That's not a decent wage."
DeJuliis says demolition crane operators are usually paid $16.44 an hour -- about 26 percent more than the city's posted top scale.
Coming up with more money
Public Works is trying to improve the pay scale. On Wednesday, the Board of Estimates will be asked to increase the salary range by as much as $1 an hour -- still below the union average.
"Hopefully, this will be enough to get more qualified applicants in," Kocher said. "There are a lot of benefits that the city also offers to complement pay that may very well increase the number of applicants."
Still, Public Works isn't taking any chances.
While the hiring effort is under way, the agency intends to bring in a private operator under a one-year "on call" contract. A request for proposals will go out in early May for a crane operator beginning in mid-July.
"We're optimistic we're going to have somebody on board and will be utilizing that crane fully," Kocher said. "That's why we have it."
Pub Date: 4/20/97