Flu shots in time for flu season. Uniforms for new police officers. A monitoring system to get in step with federal oversight of the Police Department. Funds to prevent the collapse of a West Baltimore building.

Each of these were among the more than $9 million in spending items that were either rushed before Baltimore’s spending board Wednesday, or which received retroactive approval because agencies had to act swiftly to resolve urgent matters without approval from the five-member board. It was an unusual pileup of emergency spending that comes as government operations remain frequently stymied by a dysfunctional purchasing system.

Among the last-minute moves Wednesday was a request from the Baltimore City Health Department for thousands of flu shots. Rebecca Dineen, the health department’s assistant commissioner for maternal and child health, told the board that vaccination clinics should begin this week and the agency “urgently” needs approval for the vaccines. The department had put in an original request in June, but ran into delays with the procurement process, she said.

A health department spokesperson did not answer questions Wednesday afternoon about the timeline of the city’s flu vaccine rollout or whether the late purchase will delay getting shots into arms. The item was unanimously approved by the five-member board Wednesday.

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Asked about the holdups procuring flu shots at a press conference after Wednesday’s meeting, Mayor Brandon Scott said he has been frustrated by the city’s troubled procurement system. The process is not up to modern standards, he noted, but he also pointed to new leadership in the procurement department he said is prioritizing prevention of these kinds of emergency actions, even as the city looks at ways to do a more extensive overhaul of the system. The city has also brought on a consultant to recommend reforms to the purchasing process.

Items the board retroactively approved Wednesday ranged from $350,000 to prevent the collapse of a historic building along Druid Hill Avenue — that might have endangered drivers and pedestrians — to a $3 million array of purchases by the Police Department. Those included needed uniforms for new officers to replacing a declining building at the department’s gun range, a key step under the city’s consent decree. In all, the board retroactively noted four different emergency spending actions on Wednesday. Eleven others were delayed to a later meeting.

While it’s fairly common for agencies to slip spending requests onto the Board of Estimates agenda at the 11th hour, KC Kelleher, director of communications and policy for the comptroller’s office, said that it’s rare to ask the board to validate money already spent. Before Wednesday, the spending board hadn’t seen an emergency spending report from the procurement department since the summer of 2022, she said.

This delayed reporting arrangement has been a source of frustration for Comptroller Bill Henry, one of two members of the board who doesn’t belong to the Scott administration. The comptroller proposed a resolution Wednesday aimed at standardizing a process to ensure that the board and the public are notified of spending when they happen, rather than long after the fact — a measure he argued is crucial to transparent uses of the city’s funding.

Henry insisted that the current process undermines the Board of Estimates’ transparency mission. But the comptroller’s proposal met resistance from the mayor and his law department, who argued that the resolution would violate the city’s charter.

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“While I’m trying not to impugn any current individual’s honor,” Henry said, noting longstanding spending practices that predate the Scott administration, “what you’re asking is to continue a process where you have the legal authority to approve expenditures completely behind closed doors and simply report on it after the fact.”

City Solicitor Ebony Thompson and her law department proposed amending the resolution to require a full report on an emergency action to the Board of Estimates within 45 days of the spending. Scott echoed his law department’s position, and said that, while he understands the kind of government malfeasance the resolution aims to prevent, the two sides should be able to come to agreement on a process that doesn’t run into legal ambiguity.

The board deferred the emergency spending resolution until their next meeting later in the month.


Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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