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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

Accountabilityby Mark Reutter7:41 pmFeb 21, 20240

Scott administration entered into secret contracts to operate the Back River sewer plant with private consultants

A $50 million contract to operate part of the facility – disclosed by The Brew – was part of a larger pattern of hidden deals

Above: The primary clarifier at Baltimore DPW’s Back River sewage treatment plant clogged with biosolids. (MDE 2022 inspection report)

During the last two years, the Scott administration paid – without public notice or Board of Estimates approval – roughly $13 million to private consultants to run the new Headworks facility at the Back River sewage plant in Dundalk.

Then last September, a second private company was hired to run the plant’s biosolids equipment for $50 million, with “costs not to exceed $100 million” over eight years.

City to enter into $50 million contract for private management of Back River biosolids (2/16/24)

These expenditures come at a time when the city is facing a projected $107 million budget deficit in FY 2025, and all three elected officials on the BOE are running for reelection.

The Department of Public Works, which operates Back River, is under noticeable strain with skyrocketing costs – at today’s BOE alone, $1.9 million in extra work orders (EWOs) were approved, along with a $79 million contract with Whiting-Turner to rebuild the Vernon Water Pumping Station in Jones Falls Valley.

Such increases are ultimately paid for by city and county water ratepayers, whose rates have tripled over the last 20 years.

Henry Questions Arrangement

”You did a procurement in January 2022 that nobody knew about outside of DPW, the mayor’s office and finance. You then did another emergency procurement?” Comptroller Bill Henry marveled at the meeting.

Mayor Brandon Scott defended the secretive handling of the contracts by saying it was all done in the public interest.

“The three of us,” Scott said, referring to himself, Henry and City Council President Nick Mosby, “inherited a lot of crap, pun intended.”

”This is what we had to do to make this right. We had to do it the right way,” he continued.

The emergency no-bid contracts were drawn up because city employees were leaving the plant in droves, and those who remained weren’t certified to operate the equipment, Scott said.

Such contracts do not require prior board approval.

“It was not the fault of any of us that folks were not certified. We had to do it this way because with water and wastewater, it’s always an emergency,” the mayor concluded.

“The three of us inherited a lot of crap, pun intended”  – Mayor Brandon Scott.

His rationale was supported by Mosby, who thanked DPW and Scott for their leadership and “for having a process in place best for transparency.”

Before agreeing with Scott and Mosby to “note” the Headworks contract with Professional Startup & Operating Services and the $50 million contract with Operations Management International (OMI), Henry argued that emergency contracts should be “a last resort” used only in true emergencies.

City Administrator Faith Leach agreed.

”I act to mitigate all emergency procurements as much as possible,” she said, while Water Bureau Chief Paul Sayan insisted that the contracts were a way “to invest in ourselves” rather than the first step toward privatization of the water system.

Faith Leach subs for Mayor Brandons Scott at the June 14, 2023 Board of Estimates meeting. (CharmTV)

Faith Leach subs for Mayor Scott at a June 2023 BOE meeting. She is flanked by Council President Nick Mosby and City Solicitor Ebony Thompson. (CharmTV)

History of Pollution Violations

Pressure to enter into the contracts came from the Maryland Department of the Environment, Leach said, after MDE placed Back River under the control of Maryland Environmental Service in March 2022.

State officials ordered the takeover after the plant was found to be repeatedly sending polluted wastewater into Back River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Leach boasted that the plant was now producing ”the best effluent numbers in history,” but its success would be threatened – and Baltimore’s consent decree with MDE jeopardized – if the city did not continue to employ the 22 OMI consultants it hired last fall.

Once city employees were trained and certified to run the plant, Leach said she hoped the OMI contract could be terminated.

If so, Henry pointed out, the city would face penalties ranging from $513,000 (if the contract was terminated after year one) to $169,000 (if it was terminated after year three).

While ratifying the two contracts, Scott and Mosby also approved $11,000 in retroactive travel expenses for three top DPW personnel. (Henry followed his policy of abstaining on travel requests that come before the board.)

Wastewater Division Chief Michael Hallmen and Assistant General Counsel Katie Brinson-Hinton spent $7,433 to attend a wastewater exhibition in Chicago last September, while Special Projects Director Mohammed Rahman flew out to a week-long trenchless technology conference in Oregon at a cost of $3,557.

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