Why Baltimore should pay for a level of service, rather than the service

“I don’t even get out of the car, I just mark the job done and drive away.”

A Baltimore City maintenance worker told me that the other day, talking about repairing street lights in Central Park Heights. It’s the kind of statement a Baltimorean could spend a long time unpacking. We could talk about crime in Park Heights, about the lack of investment in poor communities, about white flight or “lazy government workers.”

The question I’m more interested in is: How do we fix the dang streetlights? And streetlights are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Baltimore maintenance issues. We have crumbling roads, leaking sewers and rusting metro tracks. We have trolly rails that haven’t been used in decades, currently destroying vehicle suspensions on major roads. The history of how we got here is important, but so is the question of how we move forward.

The obvious answer is to spend more money, and the Pugh administration’s recent decision to buy $3.5 million in new lighting is a great sign the city is willing to invest. But there is still a lot our city can do to get a better return on dollars spent — and to make sure the new lights stay on.

One way to squeeze more efficiency from the system would be to adopt principles of performance-based acquisition to our maintenance efforts. Performance based acquisition refers to a way of structuring contracts so that the government pays for a level of service, rather than the services themselves. The idea was originally developed as a better way to pay for maintenance on big weapons systems; instead of paying for spare parts, you pay a contractor to keep 90 percent of your fleet floating or planes flying.

Street light repair, coincidentally, provides a perfect example for how performance-based acquisitions could be adopted by the city. Maintenance workers are currently paid hourly at a set rate. In a performance-based system, they might earn bonuses from their hourly rate depending on the percentage of lights operational (say, nine out of 10 in their given area). In the current system, they are incentivized to work; in the performance based system, they are incentivized to have the lights work.

Of course, most maintenance issues aren’t due to poor worker motivation. Baltimore has a lot of infrastructure to maintain, with few resources. Unforeseen issues arise, experienced people leave, etc. The beauty of a performance-based system is that is can be adapted to variables. A crew that is short-staffed and still keeps nine out of 10 lights on, for instance, could receive a bigger bonus than a fully-staffed crew doing the same job. A challenging day at work becomes an opportunity to make more money.

Accurately tracking this info would be a challenge, if Baltimore’s government hadn’t dedicated significant resources to data collection. The city offers a 311 app for reporting maintenance issues, along with a web portal, all tied into the same network as the phone reporting. We can keep an accurate record of what needs fixing and where, using a combination of regular inspections, crowd-sourced reporting and open data.

Living in Baltimore, it can be easy to dismiss the lack of simple maintenance as just a consequence of our city’s history, but it’s important to remember how its absence contributes to the blight around us. A dark block is less safe than a lit one. A neighborhood with pockmarked roads gets less attention from potential homeowners. Every extinguished street light in Central Park Heights makes the neighborhood that much worse off.

Spending $3.5 million for new and improved street lights will no doubt be a great addition to the city, but when we’re unable to maintain what we currently have, it’s hard to have hope the lights will stay on for long. A single anecdote about a single worker doesn’t tarnish the entire Department of Transportation, but it’s clear we are not currently meeting our maintenance needs. If we really want performance, we should pay for it.

Ted Walsh is a Lockheed Martin Research Associate at the Center for Logistics Collaboration in the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise at the UMD School of Public Policy. His email is tedwalsh7@gmail.com.

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