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by Mark Reutter8:24 amJun 5, 20240

How a hole in the police department garage morphed into an $8.3 million non-bid project

A primer on how post-pandemic Baltimore government continues to use “emergency contracts” that sidestep competitive bidding and leave taxpayers in the dark about city spending

Above: The hole in question at the Baltimore Police Headquarters Garage. (DGS)

In the world of city contracting, one big change that’s happened since the Covid pandemic is the increased use by the Scott administration of emergency non-bid contracts.

The City Charter requires that government purchases over $50,000 be advertised, subjected to sealed bids and approved by the Board of Estimates, which consists of the mayor, comptroller, City Council president and two other members.

For large projects, the difference between low and high bids often amounts to millions of dollars.

One exception to the discipline of competition is “professional services” contracts, which city agencies are allowed to negotiate in private with qualified parties, then present to the board for approval.

Another way to bypass bidding is through “emergency procurements” where the city is compelled to act quickly to protect the public welfare and safeguard municipal property.

In this case, only the director of finance, who represents and reports to the mayor, needs to sign off on such contracts submitted by a municipal department.

While the charter calls on the director to “promptly” submit a full report to the board, in practice months and sometimes years lapse before an emergency item is brought before the Board of Estimates to note.

By that time, says Comptroller Bill Henry, most, if not all, of the money has been spent with his watchdog office none the wiser.

The language in the City Charter that allows city departments to bypass competitive bidding and Board of Estimates approval. (Article Vi, Section 11(e)(ii))

The language in the City Charter that allows department heads and the director of finance to bypass competitive bidding and Board of Estimates approval in the event of an emergency. (Article Vi, Section 11(e)(ii))

Last year, Henry estimated that at least $41 million in emergency contracting had taken place outside of public view since 2021.

In the name of transparency, he and Council President Nick Mosby struck a deal with the administration requiring the “timely” reporting of emergency spending so that they – and the public – can learn where taxpayer money is going.

“Great job, DGS!”

Which gets us to the March 20, 2024 BOE meeting where the Department of General Services disclosed to the board an emergency contract with Restoration East LLC to repair the police headquarters garage on East Fayette Street.

“The facility experienced localized structural collapse, and we used the emergency procurement to address the issue promptly,” said Marwan Alkarajat, chief of capital projects for DGS.

Even though the amount disclosed – $6.8 million – seemed rather extravagant to repair a concrete hole one foot wide by three feet long, the expenditure met with Henry’s approval.

The original request – for $6.8 million – seemed rather extravagant to repair a concrete hole one foot wide by three feet long.

“When a big chunk of cement or concrete falls out of the roof of your garage with no warning, that is pretty much the definition of the need for an emergency procurement,” said Henry.

Still, he wanted clarification from DGS about a rumor he had heard.

“The emergency procurement that you’re bringing before us to note, that is just about repairs to the garage itself. There is no other construction or renovations for any other facilities?” he asked. “Somebody out there is under the impression that Evidence Control is being fixed as part of this.”

Alkarajat said the Police Department’s Evidence Control Unit is in the basement of the garage and would be subject to waterproofing under the contract.

“So you are fixing the garage, and that is an auxiliary benefit. I get that,” Henry said just before Mosby interjected and exclaimed, “Great job, DGS!”

Comptroller Bill Henry discusses the Baltimore Police Garage Emergencvy Repairs contract with DGS capital projects manager Marwan Alkarajat, below. (CharmTV)

Comptroller Bill Henry discusses the emergency repairs contract with DGS Project Manager Marwan Alkarajat, below. (CharmTV)

Marwan Alkarajat, Dept General Services

Now Comes the Cost Overrun

Given that background, consider what DGS is asking the spending board to approve at its meeting today – an additional $1,492,607.34.

In stark contrast to three months ago, DGS is now saying that only a small part ($1.8 million) of the original contract went to structural repairs for the garage.

Instead, the bulk of the spending – 75% – was used to replace “certain HVAC equipment” in the garage and to fix “targeted areas of water infiltration” independent of the structural repairs.

In other words, DGS circumvented competitive bidding to pay for improvements to the police building (including air conditioning and heating) by hyping up the hole as a public hazard “of such magnitude that it was determined immediate emergency solutions were required,” as stated in correspondence to the board.

Meanwhile, an actual emergency was unfolding.

On March 19, or a day before Henry’s exchange with Alkarajat, Restoration East and an unnamed structural engineering team reported to the agency that the garage was suffering from “extensive superficial delamination.”

The delamination (in layman’s terms, the separation of concrete layers) “was noticeably more pronounced than what was observed during the initial testing conducted by the structural engineer, which was hindered by somewhat limited access while the garage was fully occupied,” DGS explained.

“The additional delamination presents various conditions necessitating repair, including partial depth, full depth, overhead and vertical repairs” that Restoration East now proposes to do for the extra $1,492,607.34.

More Time Delays

The board could refuse to pay for this Extra Work Order, which is 26% above the original emergency procurement.

But that’s unlikely given that Scott and his two appointees, Public Works Director Khalil Zaied, a former DGS head, and City Solicitor Ebony Thompson, have the majority vote.

6/5 UPDATE: The panel approved the $1,492,607.34 EWO this morning after Mosby asked, “Are there any questions or concerns from the board?” Hearing and seeing none, the board unanimously affirmed the expenditure.

Time will tell if more EWOs will arise from this project, as has happened before in cases ranging from the Harford Road Bridge to sewer and road rebuilds (here, here, here, here, here, here).

What is now certain is that renovating the police garage, of which speed was initially considered a necessity, is going to take a long time.

Back in March, DGS said the garage would reopen at the start of 2025.

Today the spending board will be asked to push back the completion date by 154 days to mid-July 2025, making it nearly two years since the one-by-three-foot hole was first detected in August 2023.

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