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City can save millions, business leaders say

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cash-strapped Baltimore could save millions of dollars and vastly improve city services, according to a far-reaching study of government that the local business community delivered yesterday to an enthusiastic Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Some of the more than 250 recommendations - reducing trash collections, for example - might be too controversial.

But receiving the long-awaited, 500-page report, O'Malley called it "a gift to the people of this city."

Prepared by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable, it suggests major and minor changes to city government that if fully adopted, it says, could save the city $83 million to $135 million a year.

The report does not call for layoffs nor recommend any specific reduction in the size of the city's work force.

"Make no mistake. If you think these recommendations are only to reduce expenses, you're wrong. The real objectives are to improve both the quality and the scope of services provided to our citizens," said John Morton III, chairman of the GBC.

"It is very clear that 'business as usual' when it comes to the delivery of municipal services is no longer in the best interest of Baltimore's citizens."

The project, which brought together more than 250 business leaders over the past five months, reviewed operations in the departments of Public Works, Housing and Community Development, Health, Recreation and Parks and the Fire Department. It also examined the city's need to improve its information technology services.

Some of the major recommendations include reducing trash pickups, privatizing the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's property management services, transferring the Housing Police to the city Police Department, closing the Neighborhood Service Centers, and merging the Baltimore Mental Health Systems with Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems.

There are pages and pages of other proposals. Some could save the city millions of dollars; other ideas suggest savings of a few thousand dollars.

O'Malley wholeheartedly endorsed the report yesterday and vowed to work with the business leaders and act on some their recommendations.

"We won't let you down. We're going to do our absolute best," he said at the news conference. "We're going to move on this."

O'Malley has courted the business community and sought its input since the earliest days of his administration. In December, he wrote the GBC about joining forces with the Presidents' Roundtable to study the management and efficiency of city government.

The GBC is a 600-member group of business and civic leaders; the Roundtable is a group of about two dozen African-American business leaders.

O'Malley was already well aware of the GBC's interest, having attended a meeting in October in which David L. Cohen, former chief of staff for Mayor Ed Rendell of Philadelphia, talked about how the business community helped rescue that city from the brink of financial ruin.

The Philadelphia study took more than two years to complete and brought forth recommendations that are saving the city $500 million a year, the GBC says.

Yesterday, O'Malley held up the report as one more example of how he is trying to rethink city government.

"The status quo has its fans, still has its fans. But things have to change," he said. "This is a reformist administration and we're going to change city government."

He has embraced and acted on an earlier recommendation from the study's authors to close some city fire stations and put more ambulances on the street. As with many of the proposals in the report, closing fire stations was not a new idea.

"That was kind of a no-brainer," said O'Malley. "That was something I think everybody in city government had acknowledged for years, but we hadn't moved on it."

O'Malley said he would be meeting with department heads and members of his Cabinet throughout the week to review the proposals. Deciding whether to act on the various proposals could take at least a month, he said.

But, he said, there will be action.

"Making government more efficient and effective is going to make us able to give our citizens the services they need," O'Malley said. "Taxpayers should get a good return on their investment.

Some of the suggestions, such as reducing trash pickups in selected neighborhoods to once a week, could run into fierce opposition.

Though the proposal could save the city $2.4 million a year, its enactment also would require changing the City Charter. Twice-weekly trash collection is the law in Baltimore.

George L. Winfield, director of the Department of Public Works, said he opposes a reduction "because we need to change the appearance of the city and we haven't done that right now."

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who has sometimes been critical of O'Malley, was much less diplomatic in rejecting the proposal.

"It will drive people out of the city. Two trash collections in a city like Baltimore is absolutely essential," he said. "It doesn't make any sense."

The nine Neighborhood Service Centers, where residents can get referrals for services or lodge complaints, could disappear under one proposal to save the city $3.8 million. The city would keep "crisis centers" in two of the city's most troubled neighborhoods.

The main thrust of the idea is to route complaints and inquiries into a central office within the mayor's administration.

As with closing fire stations, closing the service centers is an idea that has kicked around city government for several years.

"If that means addressing our communities in another way, we've been talking about it, but let's do it," said City Council President Sheila Dixon.

Though the centers began during the Schaefer administration, even the former mayor conceded that at the very least they need to be overhauled. Mitchell Klein, of the activist Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, applauded the idea of closing them.

"These things are less than effective. These things totally frustrate citizens who are trying to get anything done," said Mitchell, who as head organizer for ACORN works closely with neighborhood groups.

Though the report contains more than 250 recommendations, it does not address privatizing essentials, such as city water service and trash pickup.

The authors, who looked into the privatizing water service, went so far as to have representatives of Atlanta in town for a presentation. The Georgia city saved $20 million doing this.

Baltimore, however, presents a complicated situation in terms of privatizing water service, said Matthew D. Gallagher, the report's project director. State and local laws would have to be changed. Surrounding jurisdictions that enjoy the cheapest water on the East Coast could face higher rates.

Gallagher, who worked in the Rendell administration, said people often look to privatization as "a be-all cure to a city's management woes, and it's not." Sometimes, he said, the better approach is to improve efficiency.

"Don't just say: 'Get rid of it.' What are the steps you can take to improve it?" he said. "I think that's what you see in Solid Waste. We didn't want to just punt."

Aside from the proposed changes in trash collection, the report also recommends staggering starting times for trash crews and redrawing collection routes.

Throughout his administration, O'Malley has not shied away from looking elsewhere for ideas and successful programs to bring to Baltimore. Yesterday, he pointed out that New York City merged its Housing Authority police with the city police department. Patricia J. Payne, director of Baltimore's Housing Authority, offered some support for the proposal.

"As we better manage our developments, our needs for that kind of intensive police presence will diminish," she said.

During yesterday's news conference, Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the GBC, said that while mayors are often praised for the bricks-and-mortar projects they leave behind, they are also judged by how well government works.

"That ultimately will determine whether he is or is not a good manager," he said.

Dixon said she looks forward to fully examining the report and having the GBC make a presentation to the City Council.

"If there are things that I feel that are going to function a lot better, then I hope that we do them because we have had a lot of reports around for a long time," said Dixon.

"The question is are we really ready to step out and take some risks to make city government work better."

Report highlights

Here are 10 recommendations for saving the city money from a report submitted yesterday to Mayor Martin O'Malley by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable:

Privatize property management for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Estimated savings of $7 million to $9 million.

Transfer the Housing Authority police to the city Police Department. Estimated savings of $4 million.

Close the city's nine Neighborhood Service Centers. Estimated savings of $3.8 million.

Create a Department of General Services separate from the Department of Public Works. Estimated savings of $6 million to $9 million.

Reduce twice-weekly trash collection to one day for waste and one day for recyclables in certain neighborhoods. Estimated savings of $2.45 million.

Merge the Baltimore Mental Health Systems and Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems. Estimated savings of $1 million to $2 million.

Better manage paid leave to reduce overtime costs in the Fire Department. Estimated savings of $3 million to $5 million.

Lift restrictions on fees for rental of the city's conduit system. Estimated revenue increase of $3 million to $25 million.

Establish a varying fee structure at Department of Recreation and Parks facilities for city and non-city residents. Estimated revenue gain of $750,000.

Make the city's chief information officer a Cabinet-level position to head a separate information technology department.

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