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Food for reptiles, condoms among quirky city purchases

Last year Baltimore City paid vendors more than $800 million, much of it for construction projects, gas and electricity, trash and recycling services, transportation and the like, according to monthly figures posted on a city website.

But some purchases look odder than others, at least at first blush: Frozen mice. A mink coat. Paintball. About $27,000 worth of food from S'ghetti Eddie's for the Fire Department.

Those spending details and many others emerged during a Baltimore Sun review of the city's 2012 figures. The highest-grossing vendor? Fru-Con Construction, a Virginia company that specializes in building water-treatment plants. The firm received more than $53 million.

In some cases, large sums passed through city accounts from other public sources. Associated Black Charities, for instance, ranked among the top 10 highest-paid vendors, even though the $18 million it received from the city originated with the federal government.

Food purchases were a recurring theme across agencies. Overall, the city spent about $186,000 on food during the year, according to the data.

The caterers of choice were Jay's Restaurant Group and Class Act Catering. Many of the events were lunch or breakfast meetings for city boards and commissions. The Planning Commission, which develops and maintains the city's master plan, catered almost all of its 21 meetings.

Some of the heftier food expenses — notably, two payments to S'ghetti Eddie's, each totaling more than $13,000 — came from the Fire Department.

The Fire Department didn't respond to a public records request for details on the purchases. But Eddie Dopkin, who owns the restaurant group that includes S'ghetti Eddie's in Roland Park, said the orders covered food for emergency workers during big storms. No fancy meals, he said — just items such as bagels, breakfast sandwiches, pizza and subs.

There were also several apparent clothing purchases on the list. The Health Department spent $500 at Forever 21, a women's clothing store. The agency said it purchased gift cards to hand out as incentives for participating in Operation Safe Kids, a program for high-risk youth.

And a $1,500 dark brown, sheared mink jacket was purchased from Furs by Demetrios in Cockeysville. Though listed as a Finance Department expense, the money was independently raised by Baltimore's Sister Cities committee, according to mayor's office staffer Renee Samuels. The coat was raffled off to benefit the exchange program.

Then there are the critters. The Recreation and Parks Department spent more than $7,000 at the Gourmet Rodent, a Florida company that sells frozen mice, and it shelled out $930 to Armstrong's Cricket Farm in California. Gwendolyn Chambers, department spokeswoman, said the rodents were food for birds of prey and some reptiles at the Carrie Murray Nature Center, while the crickets were fed to the center's tarantulas and other reptiles.

The Health Department bought $935 worth of Trojan brand condoms and spent $630 on nursing bras. The condoms were handed out at clinics and health fairs as part of the department's STD and HIV outreach, spokeswoman Tiffany Thomas Smith said. The bras were for an adolescent reproductive health program and were provided to encourage teen moms to breast-feed.

The city also spent nearly $9,000 on mousetraps and $23,000 on paper bags.

Baltimore's youth were the beneficiaries of many of the city's entertainment and catering purchases. The city spent thousands of dollars on movie tickets, gift cards to fast-food restaurants and formal luncheons for children in its after-school and prevention programs.

Baltimore Circuit Court also paid $595 to Robin Hood Paintball in Havre de Grace as a treat for boys at the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center, which supports the academic and social development of disadvantaged youth.

— Alison Matas and Scott Calvert

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