A year ago, Brandon Scott proposed a charter amendment to remove the city solicitor and public works director from the Board of Estimates, arguing that, as mayoral appointees, their presence made the board a rubber stamp for the mayor.
“Currently, if the mayor wants a contract before the board to be approved, it will be approved, even when my questions are unanswered and even when the public has serious concerns,” Scott said at the time. “That’s not transparent, nor is it in the public’s interest.”
Instead, he argued that the panel’s votes should be distributed equally among its three elected officials – the mayor, City Council president and comptroller.
Scott was City Council president when he made that argument. Today Mayor Scott used his two appointees to approve a major sewage plant contract, then blocked an attempt by Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry to delay the 2021 tax sale because of the Covid health emergency.
The $80 million contract handed to Whiting-Turner to upgrade the Patatspco Wastewater Treatment Plant was protested by Ulliman Schutte Construction, which argued that the removal of a mobilization cap by the Department of Public Works gave Whiting-Turn an unfair advantage.
Mosby and Henry expressed various concerns about the contract during lengthy back and forth among the contractors and DPW officials.
The discussion was then cut short by acting DPW Director Matthew Garbark, who called for a board vote even though the contract involved his own department (an apparent conflict of interest) and had received his prior approval as agency director (ditto).
City Solicitor James Shea quickly seconded the motion. Scott then joined his appointees Garbark and Shea in approving the contract over the “nay” votes of Mosby and Henry.
As Circumstances Change
A similar scenario took place a few minutes later when Henry and Mosby questioned the fairness of holding the annual tax sale, which allows investors to buy liens and obtain ownership of tax-delinquent properties.
“This puts a tremendous amount of anxiety for folks that are already dealing with a tremendous amount of social and emotional concerns associated with the economic fallout from Covid-19,” Mosby said.
He and Henry asked Scott to delay the May 17 tax sale until there was more time to study its impact on poor and elderly homeowners.
Before the board was whether or not to approve a $39,000 contract with The Baltimore Sun to advertise the tax sale in a newspaper supplement and a $120,000 contract with RealAuction.com to transfer tax sale data to its website.
Scott said his administration was “reviewing all of its options.” But with $14-15 million of tax revenues at stake, “the best course” was to approve these two contracts, he continued.
“We are on a very tight time frame,” agreed Finance Director Henry Raymond, saying the city has to advertise the tax sale by next week to stay on schedule.
Last year, Scott called on then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to postpone the 2020 tax sale until at least 90 days after the Covid state of emergency was lifted and people who had lost their jobs were able to get back to work and pay delinquent bills.
Today Scott voted to approve the Sun and RealAuction contracts and move forward with the May 17 auction. He was joined by Garbark and Shea in the 3-2 vote.
UPDATE: The mayor’s office says today’s vote does not necessarily mean that the May 17 auction will move forward:
“The mayor is continuing to explore all legal options with regard to the sale and is committed to charting a path forward in the coming weeks that prioritizes Baltimore homeowners in our hardest-hit communities,” Deputy Director of Communications Stefanie Marvonis said in an email to The Brew.