The city of Baltimore’s private security costs have ballooned over the last five years and will increase again with another $4.5 million approved by the Board of Estimates.
Since 2016, Baltimore has contracted with Metropolitan Protective Services for armed security. The initial $150,000 contract was specific to the Health Department, according to minutes from the city’s spending board. It has since increased to nearly $6 million through nine amendments and renewals.
On Wednesday, the Board of Estimates agreed to pay $4.5 million more for a three-month span of coverage expiring in June. Officials were told much of that money would cover services the firm already has provided.
The approval was unanimous, but several board members pledged to take a harder look at future funding for armed guards and at the contract’s minority-owned business participation goals.
The scope of the services provided under the contract was not disclosed. Democratic Council President Nick Mosby, chair of the board, urged city officials Wednesday to avoid specifics.
“Anything that is sensitive information from a security perspective, please do not go down that path,” Mosby said.
Chichi Nyagah-Nash, Baltimore’s director of general services, said the departments of health, general services and public works use armed guards provided by the contract. For instance, Nyagah-Nash said general services is responsible for arranging guards for hotels being used as shelters for homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Of the $4.5 million approved Wednesday, $1.85 million was to be used by her department, Nyagah-Nash said. The city hopes to recoup some COVID-related expenses via federal funds allocated to the city for pandemic relief, she said.
Finance Director Henry Raymond promised board members he would provide a more detailed breakdown of reimbursable expenses.
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The board last approved a $170,000 increase to the contract in late February. Nyagah-Nash said then the increase was for an unspecified “emergency situation.”
The five-member board also includes Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, Democratic Comptroller Bill Henry, Solicitor Jim Shea and acting Director of Public Works Matthew Garbark.
Scott’s office did not respond to a question about the reason for the allocation. The comptroller’s office declined to say what the spending was for.
Baltimore began contracting for armed private security in response to “security breaches,” Nyagah-Nash explained to the board in February.
Since the 2016 problems that led to the initial contract, Nyagah-Nash said the contract has been expanded “due to emergencies.”
One increase in 2017 paid to protect vacant schools, she said, after several buildings were “essentially stripped down to nothing.” The contract with Metropolitan Protective Services, based in Prince George’s County, increased by $1 million that year, city records show.
In April 2019, Baltimore renewed the contract a third time, agreeing to another $1 million in spending. By December of that year, an additional $1 million increase was approved. In 2020, a fourth renewal for $1.5 million was approved in March, city records show.
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Metropolitan Protective Services guarded ballot drop boxes last year, and security was increased after a guard was shot and injured in October in Northeast Baltimore in what investigators believe was an attempted robbery. At least $730,000 has been billed for election security, city invoices show.
“It’s been a series of unfortunate events that has led to really dramatic spikes,” Nyagah-Nash said.
Although Baltimore is protected by a police force at an expense of more than $500 million annually, officers protect only two sites: City Hall and the Abel Wolman Municipal Building, where the city’s revenue collection operation is housed, she said.
Peter LaPorte, director of business development for Metropolitan Protective Services, said his company’s guards complement the work of city police, he said.
LaPorte said Metropolitan staff guard city towing lots and stables for the public works department, in addition to the duties outlined during the Board of Estimates meetings. The company is usually assigned to more visible or “challenging” areas, he said.
“You don’t want to put your law enforcement officers on those posts,” LaPorte said. “You want them doing their work because of their experience.”
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Henry questioned who has been working with agency heads to decide whether they need armed security. Purchasing Agent Keasha Brown said that has been determined by each agency.
“It’s been a real point of sensitivity for the last several years — how we deal with interactions between the police department and the community and how members of the police department behave with their weapons,” Henry said. “Given the clear sensitivity of those matters, it would be nice if there was some type of clear policy determination.”
Nyagah-Nash said the city expects to rebid the contract soon.
“Before that new contract goes out on the street, I think we need to have a real conversation about who needs to be using armed security and who doesn’t,” Henry said.
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Garbark said the Department of Public Works uses both armed and unarmed security. Armed security is tapped for things of a “homeland security critical nature,” he said.
Some board members also were concerned about the structure of the contract, which has allowed the vendor to obtain a waiver of requirements for participation by minority- and women-owned businesses.
Mosby asked if the city had identified minority- and women-owned businesses that could do the work. LaShella Miller, acting chief of the city law department’s minority and women’s business opportunity office, said additional credentials and licensing are required for armed guard firms, limiting the pool of available companies. However, two are eligible, she said. If a new contract is bid, it could include goals for participation by such firms, she said.