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Will water contract 1167R pass the 100 EWO mark?

Or how city agencies get around Baltimore’s bidding procedures by declaring an “extra work order.”

Above: It takes a deep dive in the murky waters of City Hall contracting practices to explain how project costs balloon so dramatically.

Now that I’ve grabbed you by the lapels with this exciting headline, let me tell you how contracts can swell larger and larger in Baltimore city government.

All contracts over $5,000 are supposed to be approved ahead of time by the Board of Estimates. Except when they’re not.

And not is becoming an operative word as several agencies resort to Extra Work Orders (“EWOs” in city gov parlance) to bypass the bidding process and/or to clean up old contracts “under water.”

WC (Water Contract) 1167R is in the latter category. At its Wednesday meeting, the Board of Estimates approved the 95th EWO on this contract to J. Fletcher Creamer & Son for “urgent need work infrastructure rehabilitation, various locations.”

By itself, the EWO was not big – $93,774 – but combined with the 94 other EWOs, WC 1167R has ballooned to $17,033,331 from its original bid price of $10,932,235. That’s a 56% increase.

Bundling EWOs Together on “Live” Contracts

Last June, Robert L. McCarty, the city auditor, criticized the bureau of water for bundling together too many EWOs on an existing contract (WC 1198) without seeking prior approval by the Board of Estimates.

In response, Rudolph S. Chow, chief of the water bureau, said that, “going forward,” the agency would “make sure that we follow the proper approval process.”

But seven months after that promise, the practice continues, not only at water but at several other agencies. And it continues to be approved by the spending board.

Other Examples

Two weeks ago, for example, a $582,737 EWO was grafted onto a West Baltimore grading contract (TR 10005, “Uplands Redevelopment Mass Grading and Infrastructure”) to hurry up work a new recycling unit (the Super Citizen Convenience Center) on Sisson Street in North Baltimore.

And on November 23, Spiniello Co. – whose EWOs concerned city auditor McCarty back in June – the Board of Estimates granted the 47th EWO on a water contract. (WC 1156.)

The Brew also reported how a paving contract for the Grand Prix racetrack in the Inner Harbor was stretched to encompass a $637,741 EWO to repave lower Key Highway several miles away. (That was TR 10324, described as “Baltimore City Downtown Infrastructure Improvements Project.”)

In all of these cases, the competitive bidding process was bypassed – as was Board pre-approval for a change order – by using a “live,” or active, contract and then billing the work as an EWO.

Cleaning up Old Bills

In regards to WC 1167R, the nearly 100 EWOs charged to the contract represent adjustments for work done on the city’s aging water system by the Fletcher Creamer – some work dating back to 2010, said Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher.

“Essentially, this is cleaning up old billing,” Kocher said yesterday. “It’s one of the things the director wants to make sure is done. He wasn’t the director then, and he wants to make sure all the contracts are timely and all the paperwork is done.”

The director in question is Alfred H. Foxx, who switched in June 2010 from being chief of the transportation department to public works director, with responsibilities over the city’s water and sewer systems.

Foxx is one of five members of the Board of Estimates. He voted to approve the 95th EWO on the water contract at Wednesday’s meeting, as did Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Comptroller Joan Pratt and Deputy City Solicitor David Ralph representing an absent City Solicitor George Nilson.

Because the EWO was classified as a “routine agenda item,” it was passed without comment by the board as part of its blanket approval of about 60 spending items.

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