Baltimore City Council has formed an investigative committee to study Mayor Brandon Scott’s plan to sign a management agreement for the city’s underground conduit utility system with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
The committee, which is authorized by city code and has subpoena powers, was announced Monday by Council President Nick Mosby during the group’s virtual lunchtime meeting. The council voted unanimously Monday evening in favor of creating the committee.
The committee will be chaired by Councilman Eric Costello and include council members Sharon Green Middleton, Robert Stokes, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Danielle McCray — all Mosby’s selections. Scott, Mosby and all of the council members are Democrats.
The council had already announced a hearing Thursday by the new committee for 5 p.m.
Mosby has raised objections to the administration’s plan for the conduit. It calls for BGE to stop making payments for its use of the conduit in exchange for covering annual maintenance costs for the system. Baltimore’s conduit includes more than 700 miles of terra cotta pipe to carry utility lines beneath the city.
BGE is the biggest user of the system, which dates to 1898, occupying 76% of the conduit. Currently, the city government pays to maintain the system and leases space inside to various utilities. Other notable users include cable company Comcast.
Scott’s administration fast-tracked the deal, announcing the proposal will be considered by the Board of Estimates at its next meeting on Feb. 15. Scott sits on that five-member board and controls two additional seats. That means the measure should be approved — unless the mayor changes course.
Scott’s plan would require BGE to undertake $134 million in capital improvements over the next four years and pay $1.5 million annually for maintenance. About $34.5 million is expected to be invested by the utility annually — $6.5 million more than BGE is currently pays to rent space in the system, according to the administration.
If BGE does not spend $134 million in four years, the city would get the remainder in a lump sum, according to Scott’s spokesman.
Mosby, who sits on and chairs the Board of Estimates, has raised concerns about the deal violating the spirit of a charter amendment passed by city voters in November. That amendment bars the sale or lease of the conduit system.
“It is clear that the administration is set to disregard the clear directive from our voters,” Mosby wrote in an email Monday to city residents. He urged residents to attend Thursday’s hearing.
During the council’s midday Monday meeting, Mosby argued forming the committee was a “good action to take” in light of the proposed conduit agreement.
“While BGE is a great partner to have, we cannot allow a for-profit company to make unilateral decisions on our public infrastructure,” Mosby told residents in his email.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Baltimore code calls for the legislative investigations committee to be a standing or permanent committee. However, the committee has never been staffed by Mosby since he took office in December 2020.
City code allows the legislative investigations committee to look into complaints of inefficiency and other problems within the city’s departments, bureaus and commissions. The committee has the power to issue subpoenas, which means it can compel witnesses to attend meetings and produce documents, including books, accounts and records.
Mosby said Monday he felt that subpoena power was necessary to thoroughly investigate the conduit agreement. The council president said he learned of the proposal through media reports rather than communication from the mayor’s office.
Scott argued last week the deal under consideration is neither a lease nor a sale. Asked if he believes a maintenance agreement would violate the spirit of the charter amendment, he reiterated that he is neither leasing nor selling the system.
Scott’s staff did not respond to a request for comment.
Discussions about alternatives for the conduit system began last year, just ahead of the passage of the charter amendment. City officials argued the cost of maintaining the system has ballooned beyond the revenue it generates and said the city is losing $7 million annually on the system.
In November, Scott’s administration proposed hiring a consultant for $50,000 to explore the “best and highest use” of the system. A vote on the contract was delayed until after the election at Mosby’s request, then approved in mid-November. Work on that contract is incomplete.