The Baltimore City Council wants respect, and to get it, council members are expected to pass a resolution tonight to withhold money from city agencies that they want to review.
Though the amount of money that may be withheld from three key departments is minuscule - $800,000 in a $2 billion budget - council members say it sends a message that city agencies will be held accountable for the programs they administer.
"We've been pushing this for awhile," said Council President Sheila Dixon. "City agencies, to some degree, have really not had to perform and be evaluated on a yearly basis."
The proposal asks the Board of Estimates to withhold the money until the fall when the selected agencies and programs will be reviewed. Specifically, the council is seeking changes in the Police Department's 311 nonemergency system, improvements in the Department of Public Works' trash collection, and increases in the number of monthly housing inspections conducted by the Department of Housing and Community Development.
The council also wants a complete re-evaluation of the Neighborhood Service Centers and better monitoring of contracts by the DPW and HCD to prevent cost overruns. Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. recently published a report citing $98.9 million in overruns during the past five years.
D'Adamo called the council proposal a chance to hold the agencies accountable for the commitments made during the budget hearings and "to make sure those commitments are kept and done in good faith."
"Basically, what this is doing is giving us another opportunity to bring them in if there are problems out there that need to be addressed," he said. "If you hold money up, it seems to get people's attention."
The council's resolution fits into a change in the outlook of city government, where "accountability" has become the new buzz word.
On top of this new effort, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the President's Roundtable are assessing the efficiency of various city agencies for Mayor Martin O'Malley, who supports the council's proposal.
"In years past, we often talked about doing it, but we never cobbled together a process," said O'Malley, a former city councilman. "It's all about checks and balances. They shouldn't be a rubber stamp. If this works properly, they should be partners in the process."
O'Malley also said he hopes the council eventually holds its own hearings with the agencies.
"I think the council should be riding us and encouraging all of our departments to accomplish our goals and create a more responsive government," he said.
Dixon said that because the council cannot cut the budget, members had to find other ways of making their point.
"What I wanted to do is put something in place where we don't cut them," she said, "but we get an agreement from the Board of Estimates that we would have them come back in six months to re-evaluate the process."
She also said that during her 12 years in the council, she and other members often heard the same complaints from citizens and the same promises from city agencies. Even Baltimore's representatives to the state legislature expressed concern about the lack of accountability in city agencies, specifically money used for drug treatment programs.
"Some of our state folks are hesitant," Dixon said.