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Baltimore public works leadership: It’s about performance, not pay | COMMENTARY

The basement of the Church of the Guardian Angel in Remington had three sewer backups in the second half of 2019. Various items are piled up as the church underwent a cleanup. November 13, 2019. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun).
The basement of the Church of the Guardian Angel in Remington had three sewer backups in the second half of 2019. Various items are piled up as the church underwent a cleanup. November 13, 2019. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun). (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The cost to replace a water main can run thousands of dollars per foot. Heck, a single backhoe to dig out a faulty drainage pipe might be $75,000, not including the operator’s pay. But all that pales compared to the expense of eliminating sewage overflows from Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant: The ongoing, court-supervised Headworks Project carries a price tag of $430 million at last check. So, if there’s one thing Baltimore needs desperately, it’s a highly qualified person supervising these concerns. Too much is at stake to consider any other strategy. We need a Tom Brady to quarterback the team.

That’s why the recent nattering, whether in the City Council chambers or on social media, over how much Baltimore will pay its next public works director is, to put it mildly, foolish. On Monday at the urging of Mayor Brandon Scott, the council approved a 30% pay increase for the next person to hold that position. It lifts the salary to $245,000 annually, the third highest on the city payroll behind Police Commissioner Michael Harrison ($275,000) and the new city administrator ($250,000). Granted, the timing is lousy if only for the optics involved. The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on city residents and here is some newbie who is going to earn more than five times the average starting salary for a teacher in this state. Nice work if you can get it, right? But the point is that only the best should be able to get it, and we need to do our part to entice the best into wanting it.

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What Baltimore needs badly is to function better. The city needs to fix failing infrastructure. It needs water billing that works. Better protection against flooding. A better recycling system and cleaner streets. It needs to stop polluting local waterways (and basements) with sewage overflows. It needs to better attend to 1,400 miles of sewer pipe, 4,000 maintenance holes, 250,000 sewer house connections, 10 pump stations and two wastewater treatment plants. And it needs to do all these things as efficiently and effectively as possible because — did we mention there’s both a budget crisis and a need to reduce taxes? The public works director is the proverbial quarterback in all these efforts. If you save $57,000 to get a Dwayne Haskins as your starting QB instead of a Tom Brady, what will it cost in the long run?

We’ll concede that paying someone a higher salary doesn’t guarantee their effectiveness (See JaMarcus Russell, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, for details). We only point out that paying a low one means the highly effective people won’t bother to apply for your job. You see this in most every walk of life. No one on the City Council should feel the least bit of guilt for approving a competitive salary given that the head of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission performing similar duties for Prince George’s and Montgomery counties will still make substantially more. No, the only guilt they should feel is if they fail to hold accountable the next person installed in the post, no matter the salary.

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What Baltimore residents have a right to expect from their elected leaders is a commitment to setting measurable goals for the next public works director and holding that person to them. How well should the water billing system be operating in six months? In a year? Will Headworks be completed in a certain time frame and under a certain cost? Will sewage overflows be curtailed by a certain date? This should be the focus of attention. The reality is that $57,000 is chump change compared to the enormous cost of mismanaged public infrastructure. Get someone who keeps it in good repair and runs it well, and then hold that individual accountable and you have something more precious than gold: competent leadership. Baltimore ought to be willing to pay any reasonable price for that.

Of course, we do not if the next public works head will be Tom Brady (although at his age, the actual Tom Brady might be a candidate given the concussion risks associated with his current gig). But we can certainly expect that person to produce statistics demonstrating he or she deserves serious all-pro consideration. Baltimore needs nothing less.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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