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Inside City Hall: Not so great expectations

The 2013 Baltimore budget sets the performance bar low for many city agencies.

Above: Rat control in Baltimore: squashed ones in an alley in Charles Village.

If you ever wondered why Baltimore seems like a perennial underachiever (and those responding to The Brew’s “Civic Suggestion Box” so indicated), perhaps it’s because the standards for the city set by the city are often minimalist.

Take the Department of Public Works. In its upcoming 2013 budget, DPW sets a number of performance measures of what it expects of itself.

Here are the department’s targets for 2013:

• percent of citizens who rate city’s cleanliness as good or excellent: 30%
• percent of citizens who rate city’s rat control as good or excellent: 25%
• percent of tonnage diverted through recycling: 30%

The figures prompted City Councilman James B. Kraft to exclaim at a recent budget hearing, “30% is not a passing grade.”

Asked how a city department can aim so low, Public Works Director Alfred Foxx grimaced and then responded gamely, “We’re working every day to improve. We’re passionate about keeping the city clean.”

DPW isn’t alone in peddling mediocrity as a performance goal.

The Department of Transportation is striving for 29% “good or excellent” street and sidewalk maintenance for 2013, the same objective as in 2012 and 2011. That’s after tens of millions of dollars funneled into road resurfacing projects, most of it paid for by federal stimulus grants and state motor vehicle funds.

And what about street lighting? Despite the rapid installation of LED street lights, DOT offers the same objective in 2013 as in 2012 – a little more than half (59%) of the public viewing streets at night in a favorable light.

Unfavorability Rating

In the private sector, such poor customer satisfaction would doom a product and the producer. Not so in the case of city agencies. The Police Department plans to spend $3.6 million next year– up from $2.8 million this year – on its K-9 and Mounted Horse Unit.

Its goal for each year is the same: 30% “positive searches” by the unit, which devotes much of its time to clearing the streets of drunks when Federal Hill bars and downtown clubs close on weekends.

The Police Civilian Review Board likewise hopes to maintain a 40% favorability rating of its complaint process (which can more accurately be described as an unfavorability rating). Small wonder civilian lawsuits against police misconduct have skyrocketed.

Other agencies do try to reach higher ground. The Recreation and Parks Department wants 90% of Baltimoreans to rate city-run swimming pools as good or excellent, a goal that appears more aspirational than real when fewer than 60% rated the pools as good or better two years ago.

The Urban Forestry unit aims to cut the average time between inspection and tree removal from 180 days to 148 days. But in its rush to chop down trees, another performance measure – the number of damage and liability claims stemming from tree removal – goes a bit haywire.

The goal for next year is 86 liability claims. That’s up from 82 claims in 2011.

Slashing Nine Weeks to Eight

Some agencies, such as the state’s attorney’s office, do not list any performance goals in next year’s budget.

Others have ambitions whose fulfillment could only stir the blood of bureaucrats. Take the Minority and Women’s Business Opportunity Office (MWBOO). This coming year it solemnly binds itself to reducing its applicant review turnaround time from nine weeks to eight weeks.

A few agencies have lowered their aims in the new budget year that will go into effect on July 1.

The Enoch Pratt Library has dialed back its “staff helpfulness” from 94% to 89%, while the Finance Department plans a 10-minute wait time at its customer call center next year, up from 5 minutes this year.

In some cases the city opts for an outcome that nobody could quarrel with. Last year, the Police Department’s Marine Unit targeted the “number of drownings in the Inner Harbor” as two. That sounded a bit harsh. The coming year: a tourist-friendly zero.

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