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The Nose

Off Guard

Posted 4/18/2001

Mayor Martin O'Malley scored a 4.6 percent bump in state funds for the coming fiscal year--a feat managed in part by traveling to Annapolis on March 6 and convincing legislators that he can erase Baltimore's budget deficit. One strategy he offered was privatizing security and cleaning services for municipal buildings, eliminating some 220 low-paid workers within the 5,000-plus-strong Department of Public Works (DPW).

Soon thereafter, some city custodians were urged by DPW management to collect their pensions and leave. Expecting the same, security staffers organized, compiling documents and writing to elected officials explaining why their duties should be performed by civil servants and not rent-a-cops. Out of this campaign emerged some intriguing details about the city's security operation--namely that it isn't all that secure.

According to a March 28 letter to City Council members, 33 guards currently protect 11 municipal buildings--City Hall, courthouses, health clinics, and such--from trespassers, theft, and fire. Most of the buildings cover a full block and rise seven to 14 stories, host thousands of workers and visitors a day, and have several dozen keys, combination locks, and fire and security codes. The guards juggle those keys and codes and deal with evacuations, fires, bomb threats, and, in some buildings, armed and ailing people. At the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse downtown, they also park judges' cars.

The guards contend that the city already scrimps on keeping its buildings safe, and they're getting the word out to the media despite a gag order from DPW director George Winfield, who last month circulated a memo directing--in a tone usually reserved for battle-bound regiments or errant sixth graders--that nobody but department spokespeople talk to the press. "Employees represent the Department of Public Works," Winfield wrote. "Their words and behavior reflect on the mission and goals of DPW. When it comes to the media and departmental policy, we need to speak in one voice."

Unmoved, guards passed to the Nose information on recent cuts in their forces and what they characterize as resultant lapses in security. From January 2000 to this past February, the force lost five guards who weren't replaced. (They also lost the ability to work overtime to supplement salaries that range from $21,000 to $24,000, even for supervisors with 25-year tenures.) The guards suggest reduced manpower makes mischief in municipal edifices loaded with electronics and art that much easier. For example, according to a Feb. 24 guard schedule, the courthouse complex--which isn't rigged with burglar alarms and was, as of January 2000, patrolled 24/7--now goes unprotected for a total of 24 hours on weekends (spread over three guardless stints). At the 10 municipal buildings guarded on weekends, coverage has been cut nearly in half, from 304 hours last year to 168. The guards also report that courthouse fire alarms have rarely been in working order over the last year--one more sign, they contend, of the low priority the city puts on keeping its real estate safe. (However, they acknowledge that there has been no apparent increase in incidents at the buildings.)

O'Malley, on the advice of the business community, suggests functions such as security could be provided better by the private sector. The much-ballyhooed July 2000 report by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the President's Roundtable states that performance of some "smaller, discrete" DPW functions could be done better and for less by private entities (although the business groups stop short of recommending wholesale privatization of major DPW jobs such as water and sewer service).

But the guards argue in their letter to the City Council that with their city pensions comes loyalty that private security forces would lack--loyalty they say ensures continuity, which means buildings are patrolled by experienced guards who know their turf. And they have allies in high places: In a March 31 letter to the council, Circuit Court Judge John Carroll Byrnes, who's parked at the Mitchell complex's Courthouse East for 10 years, opposed privatization. "The security of the East garage is very well maintained now; and I have no hesitation in leaving my car and the things in it, and the keys," the judge wrote. "I wouldn't do the same in a commercial garage; and the attendants at a commercial garage will not be much different from those hired to handle our garage. I want you to know that the status quo is fine."

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