The Baltimore City Council mounted a veritable filibuster in protest of the city’s pandemic-disrupted recycling collection Wednesday evening, prolonging what was scheduled to be a four-hour discussion of the Department of Public Works’ budget until nearly midnight.
At issue was the current biweekly collection schedule, which was implemented in January when officials said a COVID-fueled staffing shortage made the move necessary.
The service reduction is the second major disruption to the city’s recycling collection during the pandemic. Service was suspended altogether for nearly five months in 2020 as the department struggled to contain COVID infections among sanitation staff.
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, council members delivered a forceful letter to DPW demanding among other things a plan for the restart of weekly recycling service.
The answer the board received from DPW officials both in writing and in person at the nearly six-hour hearing left members unsatisfied.
Director Jason Mitchell said staffing issues persist and argued a route optimization study should be conducted before full recycling service resumes. Mitchell said the department has been working on an emergency basis to secure a vendor to perform the study, which will investigate changes to recycling usage since the citywide distribution of newer, larger blue recycling cans.
Funding for the study will be in the fiscal year 2023 budget, due to be implemented July 1, and the department “hopefully” will be ready to move on that date, Mitchell said.
“There’s no way you can humanly have a contract in place for this software,” Councilman Eric Costello said in the final hour of the hearing.
As the clock approached midnight, only Costello, Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Council President Nick Mosby remained in council chambers, although almost all members made an appearance Wednesday.
“You can smile all you want, you’re welcome to do that,” Costello said as the small remaining group of DPW staff reacted to his assertion. “I would love to be proven wrong, but history tells me procurement in this city is broken and that is not humanly possible.”
Officials said the new recycling cans, which are the size of the city’s large trash cans, are being more heavily used, making recycling routes across the city longer and forcing the need for the study. Council members argued residents are packing twice the normal amount of recyclables into them as the biweekly collection schedule continues.
Schleifer, who painstakingly questioned DPW officials during the latter half the hearing, argued the department’s budget should be prorated in the coming year to reflect the biweekly collection. Department officials said costs such as gas have risen and the full budget needs to be in place for when service resumes.
“We are actually using the same budget for an increased level of service,” said Aaron Moore, interim chief fiscal officer for DPW, saying the routes are now taking longer.
“Regardless of when these services come back online, this budget is somehow going to be accurate?” asked Schleifer, repeating his question several times.
“I think it is wasting our time and yours,” replied Chris Shorter, the city’s chief administrative officer. “The agency has answered the question.”
Costello interjected: “The budget is now residing with the City Council of Baltimore. This council and committee is empowered to ask questions and we’re going to do that.”
The contentious exchanges came on the second day of the City Council’s weeklong budget hearing process. This year is the last in which the board has restrained power over the budget. Currently, the City Council is limited to making cuts to the plan but cannot reallocate that money elsewhere in the spending plan. A charter amendment effective July 1 will change that.
Baltimore’s charter requires a budget to be passed five days before the start of the new fiscal year, further limiting the City Council’s power. However, board members proved Wednesday they can cause ample disruption to the process. Hearings on the Baltimore Police Department and Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, both likely targets for criticism from the City Council, are yet to come.
Earlier in Wednesday night’s hearing, council members expressed dismay that no money from the American Rescue Plan has been awarded directly to the public works department. Several council members have pleaded in the past for portions of the city’s $641 million allocation to be used to clear backlogs in city services, such as tree trimming and to restore recycling.
The federal coronavirus relief money also could be used to improve DPW’s facilities, they argued. Earlier in the hearing Mitchell said the department’s resources have suffered from significant underinvestment for decades.
Shorter said DPW submitted 37 applications for ARP funding totaling $205 million. None of those applications has received awards, but they also have not been rejected, he said.
Moore said DPW will benefit from other awards to other city agencies. Shorter argued forthcoming federal infrastructure money, for which Baltimore must compete, could aid with DPW’s needs.
Costello called the news “really disappointing.”
“It’s my sincere hope that you’re going to be reaching out to the administration as soon as this evening to talk about this sense of urgency that you’re communicating to us,” Costello said.
“We always work in partnership with the administration,” Mitchell replied.
“Lobby,” Costello said sharply. “For money.”
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Several council members said they were concerned about DPW’s ongoing staffing shortages as inflation continues to strain low income employees and the market for staff with commercial drivers licenses remains competitive. Currently, the Bureau of Solid Waste has a 10 to 11% job vacancy rate.
Budget Director Bob Cenname said he expects retention to be “more and more of a challenge.” The city has performed job studies and tried to direct raises to job classifications that received lower pay compared to similar positions across the region. The proposed 2023 budget includes $2 million for pay increases to certain employees from the City Union of Baltimore, he noted.
But city officials were focused largely on trying to find resources in the 2023 budget to pay for a $65 million increase in education spending mandated by the state, Cenname said. Other municipal employers around the region didn’t face the same obligation and directed money into bonuses or pay increases for employees, he said.
“It leaves us a little bit at a disadvantage right now,” he said.
Councilman Robert Stokes said morale among employees has been “horrible.”
“Who would want to work for a company like that?” he asked. “I wouldn’t.
“If we don’t give these young men and women a raise, we’re going to be sitting here again saying trash isn’t picked up, recycling isn’t picked up,” Stokes added. “Because they’re underpaid.”