Bad day for bureaucrats seeking money from Board of Public Works

Board of Public Works meeting

Board of Public Works meeting Aug. 22

By Len Lazarick

It was a bad day for bureaucrats at the Board of Public Works Wednesday – at least for several state officials who had to defend their spending plans to the three-member board that must approve all major state contracts.

In the end, most of the state agencies got the money they came for, but not before some uncomfortable questions and critical remarks came their way about slow payments and outsourcing loan-making and faculty hiring.

Slow pay for ambulance services

Why did it take the state 10 months to pay ambulance companies $138,000 for evacuating patients from a Crisfield nursing home threatened by Hurricane Irene?

That’s what Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp both wanted to know from Deputy Health Secretary Thomas Kim. Kim found it difficult to explain the bureaucratic long-running disputes among the department, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services about who was going to pay the bill.

“If we expect people to perform emergency work for us, we have to pay them promptly,” Kopp told Kim.

“The private sector needs much more responsive payment,” Franchot said. “Imagine how frustrating it must be to wait and wait and wait for payment. … Hopefully, it’s just an aberration.”

Eventually, the health department picked up the tab, then had 75% reimbursed by Federal Emergency Management Agency. The regulations were changed so that, next time around, the nursing home would pay the bill.

After the meeting, Franchot said that there’s a general perception that state agencies are not responsive to businesses, which “get the run-around.”

DBED outsourcing loan program

Officials from the Department of Business and Economic Development tried to explain why they were outsourcing the management of the new program to award grants to provide investment capital and loans to small, minority and women-owned businesses from the proceeds of the video lottery terminals.

“Why hire private contractors to do it?” asked Franchot, especially when the department already administered other small business loan programs.

DBED Assistant Secretary Ursula Powidzki said the department, which employs about 200 people, had “a relatively small number of people that make loans.” And the 1.5% slice of slots proceeds was starting to amount to big bucks – as much as $12 million a year.

It was not clear how much the outsourcing would cost, and Franchot eventually voted against authorizing it.

Outsourcing university hiring

Franchot had some of his biggest heartburn over a three-year, $4.6 million contract to totally outsource the recruiting and application process for faculty and staff at the University of Maryland University College. The contract was being awarded to Allegis Group Services of Hanover, Md.

“I just don’t like the feel of it,” Franchot said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

“We’ve just got to do a much better job at recruitment,” said George Schoenberger, UMUC’s chief business officer. “It’s known that they do this type of work better.”

“In the end, every decision is made by the university,” Schoenberger said. “The company won’t be deciding who to hire.”

Franchot was particularly concerned because  Susan Aldridge left earlier this year, “suddenly, mysteriously no longer there.” Franchot said Aldridge had been a dynamic leader “getting rid of dead wood” and he would support the proposal if Aldridge was still there running the online college. The college says it has about 90,000 students worldwide and 2,000 faculty, full- and part-time.

Again, Franchot got outvoted by Kopp and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who was filling in for vacationing Gov. Martin O’Malley.

$36 million for software

One bureaucrat who didn’t get what he was looking for was Elliot Schlanger, secretary of information technology. His department, which supports operations throughout state government, was looking for authorization to spend $36 million over the next 15 years on commercial off-the-shelf software, installation, training and maintenance. The department had identified 53 vendors, 35 from Maryland and 21 minority-business enterprises.

The unusual problem the board had was that Schlanger was looking for too little money over too long a period.

“Why 15 years?” asked Kopp, the same question Franchot raised. Schlanger said it was to avoid going through the same process every five years. But Franchot and Kopp, who uses her IPad during board meetings, said there was too much technological change to approve such a long authorization.

Schlanger was told to bring back a different proposal at the next meeting.

Used cars for jobs

Franchot and Kopp also questioned the $332,000 renewal of a contract with Vehicles for Change to provide used cars for temporary welfare recipients. They both like the program, but wondered why Vehicles for Change provided only 16 cars in the past year when it was supposed to provide 91 per year. The agency said the program had “a slow start-up.”

“I bet we could find 91 clients in a three-mile radius,” Franchot said.