Mayor seeks spending changes

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon wants to make several changes to the city charter that would make it easier for the city to buy goods and services - but that also would lessen City Council and public oversight of how taxpayer money is spent.

Two charter amendments Dixon introduced in the City Council would reduce public notice requirements for purchases over $25,000, allow the city to adjust spending controls more freely and make it easier for the administration to win approval for over-budget spending.

The legislation comes a year after Dixon faced criticism for her spending practices as City Council president.

A series of articles in The Sun documented her involvement in a contract that benefited a company that employed her sister. Dixon was also criticized for paying $500,000 to a former campaign chairman's company without a contract.

And earlier this month, The Sun reported on questionable purchases by the Baltimore Fire Department that circumvented the city's typical spending practices.

City officials said the current process used to buy goods and services - which, for instance, requires any spending over $5,000 to be cleared by a five-member board - is cumbersome and out of date. Public advertisements are expensive, officials said, and can be posted more cheaply on the Internet.

The proposals, a Dixon spokesman said, were in the works before Dixon took office in January.

"Mayor Dixon believes that the process ... needs to be as streamlined and transparent as possible," said Dixon spokesman Anthony McCarthy. "She wants the council to have the authority ... because she believes in the council being a fair partner."

Under the legislation, fewer members of the City Council would be required to approve what are known as supplementary appropriations - which, in past years, have largely been used to spend surplus money left over in the city budget.

The proposal would allow a simple majority, eight of the 15 members, rather than a three-quarters majority, 12 members, to approve that spending.

This month, the council approved nearly $44 million in surplus spending from the budget - and more is expected in coming weeks. McCarthy and other city officials said reducing the number of members needed to approve surplus spending gives the council more power.

Others counter that it should be harder to approve above-budget spending, not easier.

Long-term results

The legislation, introduced in the City Council last week, also drew questions from some council members who said they are concerned that it ultimately would reduce the council's power to oversee the spending of surplus dollars.

Like the General Assembly, the council has very little control over the regular budget - but it can threaten to hold up surplus spending as a negotiating tool.

"That bill ain't going nowhere until we figure out what it's really going to do," said City Councilman and budget committee chairman Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

He said he is working with the administration on refining the bill to ensure that the council does not lose its oversight powers.

"We don't have much authority now, but to give it up ... that's the part that bothers me," he said.

Another proposal would cut from two to one the number of times the city would be required to publicly advertise for companies to bid on any work over $25,000 - an announcement that comes in the form of newspaper advertisements including, at times, in The Sun.

City officials said most advertising could take place on the Internet, which ultimately would save the city money.

Internet advertising, however, is not required by the proposed charter amendment.

Cost thresholds

The legislation would also give the mayor and the council more control to set dollar-thresholds that trigger certain oversight procedures by the city.

For instance, the mayor and council could approve an ordinance to significantly raise the $5,000 threshold over which city contracts must be approved by the five-member Board of Estimates.

Currently, the city would have to approve a charter amendment to change those thresholds, and charter amendments must be approved by voters in a referendum.

Politically, the timing of the legislation is odd, not only because it is an election year - the primary will take place Sept. 11 - but also because one of Dixon's leading opponents in the mayor's race proposed a procurement plan recently that called for stiffer controls over spending.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who is running for mayor, called for reducing the mayor's power over the Board of Estimates, eliminating the practice of handing out low-dollar contracts to circumvent bidding procedures, and publicizing businesses that make campaign contributions and that also have city contracts over $25,000.

"Taxpayers deserve the government to be open and transparent in terms of how they're spending money," Mitchell said in response to Dixon's proposals. "Lowering the thresholds just seems to be heading in the wrong direction, especially in relation to what's happened in the past."

Past practices

Since taking office to complete the mayoral term of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Dixon has managed to distance herself from some purchasing scandals that took place when she was council president.

In one case, The Sun obtained an e-mail written by a Dixon staff member showing how the office instructed a company to keep bills under $5,000 so the payments would not need Board of Estimates approval. That company was run by Dixon's former campaign manager.

Dixon disciplined two staff members in that case. In January, the city's ethics board said it found no cause to pursue the matter.

Earlier this month, The Sun documented how the city Fire Department established an off-the-books account to purchase $250,000 worth of fire equipment without getting required approvals from city finance officials. That practice, which finance officials have denounced, took place for several years, including before Dixon became mayor.

Because the proposals to change the spending requirements are charter amendments, they need not only approval by the council but also by a majority of city voters.

Traditionally, voters have approved city charter amendments by wide margins. Last year, four city charter amendments were each approved by 70 percent of the vote or more.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

Proposals

Baltimore's City Council is considering a number of proposals that would change the way the city spends taxpayer money. Here are some of them:

Reduce the number of times the city must publicly advertise purchases from two to one for contracts over $25,000.

Allow the mayor and City Council to determine the threshold (currently $5,000) for which purchases must be approved by the Board of Estimates. Currently, voters must approve changes to that threshold.

Allow the City Council to approve over-budget spending with a simple majority, rather than the three-quarters majority required now.

To see a full copy of the legislation, go to http:--legistar.baltimorecitycouncil.com/mattersearch/ and search for: 07-0711 and 07-0712.

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