Rawlings-Blake challenged by council, comptroller

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Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake came under fire on two fronts Monday as the City Council sliced $6 million from her proposed budget and the city comptroller renewed allegations that the mayor's staff improperly purchased more than $650,000 in phone equipment.

Council members, following a plan devised by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, cut $6.1 million from the mayor's $2.3 billion operating budget — and asked Rawlings-Blake to divert the savings to prevent recreation centers from closing and to boost after-school and summer jobs programs.

Under the city charter, the council can cut spending, but the mayor does not have to honor the request that she redirect the eliminated funds for specific purposes.

"We are doing the only thing we have the authority to do," said Councilwoman Helen Holton, the budget committee chair.

It is rare for the council to alter the mayor's spending plan, and Rawlings-Blake later issued a statement condemning the cuts. She argued, for instance, that the $863,000 cut to the police department's $39.6 million administrative budget would result in the layoff of eight people and prevent the hiring of two others.

"I am very disappointed and very much disagree," the mayor said, though she did not say what she would do with the money saved by the council's action.

As the mayor's office grappled with the council's budget insurrection, Comptroller Joan Pratt leveled a fresh volley of accusations regarding the administration's purchase of Internet-based telephone equipment. She says the deal circumvented city competitive bidding rules.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor, denied any wrongdoing and said the purchases were made to improve the city's phone system. He also said that the new system cost far less than Pratt's figures suggest.

At the City Council's morning voting session on the budget, one of Rawlings-Blake's stalwarts on the council — Vice President Edward Reisinger — missed the votes, tipping the balance to those who supported Young's plan. Councilman William "Pete" Welch arrived late, but once he did, he voted with Young. Rawlings-Blake had previously described the plan as "unadvisable, unworkable and irresponsible."

The council voted to reduce funds for police protection of elected officials and for operation of the finance and law departments, CitiStat and the inspector general's office, among other trims. Young's office said the savings could lead to $1.1 million in additional funds for rec centers, $1.6 million for youth summer jobs and $1.7 million for after-school programs.

Young, who with Rawlings-Blake, then council president, spearheaded a similar effort in 2009 to cut Mayor Sheila Dixon's budget, said he was attempting to bring the budget into line with city residents' priorities.

"At least I did my job," Young said.

The council also approved about $1 million in cuts suggested by Councilman James Kraft to long vacant positions.

While the vote count varied on the amendments making up Young's plan, five council members opposed all or most of the council president's proposal: Robert Curran, William H. Cole IV, Sharon Green Middleton, Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, and Brandon Scott.

Mary Pat Clarke, who voted for most of Young's cuts, called redirecting funds to keep rec centers open a "very wise move." Community activists hailed the action.

"The kids need to stay busy," said Catherine Williams of Forest Park, who attended the hearing to lobby on behalf of rec centers. "When you're idle, it causes problems. Idle hands are the devil's workshop."

Pratt called a news conference Monday afternoon to elaborate on accusations she first made last week. She has accused the Mayor's Office of Information Technology of avoiding competitive bidding by tacking on the purchase of "voice over Internet protocol" or VOIP phones to a computer equipment contract with Rockville-based technology company Digicon.

"The city and the Mayor's Offfice of Information Technology have circumvented the city's purchasing process," Pratt said Monday.

O'Doherty, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, pushed his way through the crowd of reporters to hear Pratt's comments and later disputed her remarks.

"If there was any truth to these allegations, I would not be standing here answering your questions," he said.

At issue is the purchase of hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment to enable the change from traditional telephone lines to those which transmit calls via the Internet.

The mayor's office says her information technology staff is better equipped than the comptroller's office to purchase and install such technology.

"This comes back to who do you want managing the city's phone system," O'Doherty said.

The comptroller's office has supervised the city's phone service since 1949. The office issued a request for proposals for an Internet-based phone service in March 2011. It was prepared last week to seek approval of a $7 million contract with IBM for the phones and supporting equipment when Rawlings-Blake asked to defer the city spending board's vote on the contract.

The mayor's office said then that it had purchased 80 phones for $20,000 as a pilot program to determine if the phones would be compatible with the city's system.

But documents provided Monday by Pratt show that the information technology office spent another $441,000 last June on infrastructure to install the Internet phone system. She identified another $218,000 in spending she says is related to the new system.

Pratt said that the purchase showed that the system would be much larger than a pilot. The mayor's staffers, she said, were attempting to set up an Internet-based phone system "piecemeal" and without regard to the city's purchasing regulations.

Pratt said she learned of the purchase only about a month ago, after receiving a tip. She said Rawlings-Blake had been slated to meet with her about the phones Monday, but aides to the mayor later canceled the meeting.

O'Doherty said City Solicitor George Nilson was working on a letter that would show that the purchase was appropriate.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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