In June 2022, a month after human monkeypox cases began spreading around the world, Baltimore City Health Department workers looked to scale up their inventory of test kits, informational handouts and vaccine supplies to prevent the infectious disease from gaining a foothold in the city.

Within a month, the World Health Organization would declare the spread of the disease a global public-health emergency, and President Joe Biden’s administration followed suit a month later. But city officials were slower to respond to the emergency, according to records obtained by The Baltimore Banner in a public-records request.

Though some of the delays stemmed from national supply chain hurdles, labor shortfalls and other macro-economic issues beyond the health department’s control, another culprit was more local: the city’s procurement system, which controls how Baltimore purchases hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods and services each year.

“I am concerned about procurement delays,” Deputy Health Commissioner Jennifer Martin wrote to other staffer members in late June. Her concern was well-placed. It took weeks for staff members to acquire basic supplies like flyers and bubble wrap, and more than a month to get approval for the agency’s more-than $1 million contract with a vaccine vendor. It took then-Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa personally following up with other city leaders to get the green light.

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City insiders know well the migraine headaches associated with procurement, one of Baltimore’s trickiest problems that has stymied seemingly every corner of city government for years. During Mayor Brandon Scott’s tenure alone, a procurement snafu brought a Northeast Baltimore water treatment plant within two days of exhausting a crucial chemical purifier. A few months later, installations of new stop signs and roadway markers were hamstrung by a shortage of metal poles. The police department at one point had to resort to borrowing supplies for DNA tests from other jurisdictions.

Often, due to delays, the city’s mayor-controlled spending board is forced to grant rushed or even retroactive authorizations for important acquisitions — such as flu shots and uniforms for new police officers. The emergency authorization process has been decried as error-prone and expensive, minimizing the city’s potential to get good deals and source from small and diverse suppliers.

“Baltimore City is very good at dealing with emergencies,” said Department of Finance Director Michael Mocksten, who took over the city’s finance department in October 2022. “But you don’t want to operate in crisis mode.”

Mocksten is part of a team of bureaucrats brought in by the Scott administration who are attempting to revamp Baltimore’s byzantine procurement system. Frequent leadership changes at City Hall over the last two decades have prevented past mayoral administrations from attacking the problem at its root, he and others have said. Subcommittees, City Council members and work groups have assembled to identify causes and possible corrections, but the process of purchasing in Baltimore remains stubbornly inconsistent, city data shows, and worsened considerably during the coronavirus pandemic.

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But within the last few years, city leaders say, the wheels began to turn a little faster. Scott, having seen the problems manifest again and again over his years in elected office, directed his team to reorganize, and prioritize, the pesky bureau within the Department of Finance.

Mocksten, after about 16 years in New York City government, came in and quickly identified multiple holes that needed to be filled, including overhauling outdated technology and positions that similarly sized cities had already shirked. And above all, he set about hiring a new senior leadership team, including a chief procurement officer, the top procurement position that had gone unfilled for years.

People, Mocksten said, were the missing ingredients all along.

“No matter what anybody says: I have the best job in the city,” said Adam Manne, who came from Prince William County, Virginia, last spring to lead Baltimore’s Bureau of Procurement. “Because I get to see everything on where the city’s going and what we’re procuring. And now we’re moving forward. I really get the 100,000-foot view.”

The view, Manne added, looks rosy from his downtown office building on East Fayette Street. He can see the city’s latest fleet of high-tech, compact trucks that can reach the smallest alleys; the outreach workers on their way to neighborhoods that have received poor city service delivery for decades; the potholes getting filled with new stone and asphalt.

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“We have people who develop relationships with suppliers, people who get to understand the international car market, who get to understand the system of chemicals that are used to treat water, work with those suppliers, work with those agencies to become experts,” Mocksten said. “Procurement can become exciting. It can become a way for the city to drive the local economy.”

Once the city began listing jobs with higher qualification requirements and salaries, Mocksten said, the application process became more competitive. The team also has professionalized, getting certified though the Universal Public Procurement Certification Council, which standardizes the profession, and has built a relationship with the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing. They’re also assigning a procurement officer and manager to specific city departments.

But all of this requires investment, Mocksten said, not just in people but in processes. In a plan for revamping procurement the Scott administration released last month, existing operations consistently received low scores. The city’s management of contracts, meanwhile, received the lowest possible score, with the report noting that those steps have been operating “ad-hoc, and at times, not functioning at all.” A timeline included in the blueprint targets February of next year for starting a final “wave” of reform steps.

Still, the Scott administration reforms have been a long time coming, and some in City Hall have felt the mayor’s team has lacked a sense of urgency to implement reform. The city first contracted with a consultant in January 2022 to assess its procurement system — beginning the process that yielded the latest comprehensive plan.

Comptroller Bill Henry is hoping to put a measure onto the November ballot that would move the city’s Department of Finance under his purview, rather than the mayor’s, a step he argued would finally allow the city to give due attention to fixing procurement. Scott has countless other problems on his plate every day, Henry argued, and it can be hard for the mayor to turn attention to procurement when residents are focused on services like policing and trash removal.

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If the comptroller’s office had jurisdiction over the finance and procurement teams when this process got under way years ago, Henry said, these fixes would be done by now.

“Adam came in by himself,” Henry said. “And Adam is one guy dropped in the middle of an oil spill.”

In the case of the 2022 monkeypox response, much of the delay stemmed from problems registering vendors in the city’s back-end financial management system, Workday, a spokesperson for the city health department told The Baltimore Banner. The multi-year transition to the $45 million software system has come with a learning curve in City Hall, but procurement issues far exceed Workday and predate its 2020 launch.

Thomas P. Hickey, director of procurement and real property initiatives at the University System of Maryland, identified personnel as a key problem with procurement generally and referred to it as an “endemic” problem in all corners of Maryland.

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In 2017, Hickey served on a procurement workgroup that delivered recommendations to then-Mayor Catherine Pugh. But those suggestions were never implemented.

“It’s not easy,” Hickey said about the process. “There’s a shortage of folks who know the rules, and they’re so complex. There’s turnover, and competition, and you have to compete with the federal government, which pays higher.

“There’s no procurement university,” he added. “There’s a lot of knowledge that you can only obtain on the job.”

Among the problems identified in 2017 were the bureau’s unpredictable payment schedules, which had disproportionate impacts on small businesses and contractors who were not able to absorb unplanned costs, according to a copy of a progress memo delivered to then-Mayor Catherine Pugh by a group of city government officials. The memo also identified an insufficient number of bidders competing for city contracts; poor performance by vendors; poor oversight of potential instances of fraud and abuse; and a “scattered” legal and organizational structure that lacked consistency and transparency.

The Scott administration’s new plan includes a long list of recommendations, including hiring at least 14 new full-time procurement employees to the current 25-person team (Comparatively, Washington, D.C., employs 84 full-time employees) and clearly delineating staff titles and responsibilities; holding a city-wide training; creating a supplier ombudsman position to handle vendors’ concerns; and creating a “manual” that establishes clear guidance on procurement practices in an “easy to understand format.” The bureau also seeks to make changes to the city’s charter and Code of Regulations that allow for more flexibility, including for when goods and services need to be processed more quickly.

Manne and Mocksten said while “people” may serve as the closest thing to a silver bullet available to procurement, technology also plays a role in shaping how a city acquires what it needs to function. In just the last few years, they’ve begun shifting away from paperwork to go entirely digital, and they hope to build a public website on which community members can track bids and existing contracts.

While the city has made recurrent headlines for fumbling key contracts or nearly running out of important supplies, such errors represent a small sample of the department’s work, Manne and Mocksten said. And in a little less than a year’s time, they’ve already improved the department’s ability to pay vendors on time compared to pre-pandemic metrics, according to internal data they shared with members of the City Council in February.

“If that continues on that trajectory, that means we’re going to have the contract in place before the next outbreak occurs,” Mocksten said. “We’re going to have the people to process it in days and hours.”

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