Baltimore considering placing ads on city fire trucks

A Baltimore City Council committee approved a measure Tuesday that would allow advertisements to be placed on fire trucks to help support the department — and potentially prevent the closure of some fire companies.

Firefighters and community leaders backed the bill, sponsored by West Baltimore Councilman William “Pete” Welch, expressing hope that the ad revenue could prevent three of the city’s 55 fire companies from being shuttered due to budget cuts.

Welch said the city would not know how much the measure could raise until after a planned study was completed, but the prospect of any new revenue cheered fire union officials and residents.

“Firemen are very traditional — we’ve been riding on fire trucks that are red since they were pulled by horses,” said firefighters union president Rick Hoffman. “But we’re talking about people’s lives.”

While the council’s budget and taxation committee approved the measure Tuesday afternoon, the bill’s fate before the full council is uncertain. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake does not support placing ads on trucks, an aide said.

“We do not believe fire trucks are an appropriate venue for this type of advertising,” said mayoral spokesman Ryan O’Doherty.

O’Doherty said the mayor planned to roll out in the coming weeks a program to sell advertisements on certain public buildings, such as parking garages, in an attempt to raise revenue. He offered no further details on the program.

Community leaders who testified at an afternoon hearing said the advertisements would be a small sacrifice if they could stop the closure of fire companies.

Three companies are slated to close as part of the mayor’s budget plan: Truck 10 in the 1500 block of W. Lafayette Ave. in the Harlem Park neighborhood of West Baltimore, Squad 11 in the 5700 block of Eastern Ave. in the Hopkins Bayview neighborhood of Southeast Baltimore, and Truck 15 in the Broadway East neighborhood of East Baltimore .

The city has grappled with tens of millions of dollars of budget shortfalls each of the past four years and closed companies on a rolling basis to cut costs.

“These are the first of the first responders,” said Welch, whose West Baltimore district is home to Truck 10. That company helped rescue three children from a fire last month — and the children could have perished if Truck 10, the first company to arrive, had been closed, Welch and fire union officials said.

Arlene Fisher, a West Baltimore community leader, said the neighborhoods served by Truck 10 include many vacant homes that are prone to fires and elderly residents who would have difficulty fleeing a burning building.

Many homes “were built at a time when they didn’t build fire escapes on the backs of houses,” she said.

A companion measure from Welch would appoint a board to determine the size and nature of advertisements that would be acceptable.

Also Tuesday, budget and taxation committee members pushed for voters to decide whether city agencies should be audited every two years. Some city agencies have not been audited for decades, city officials say.

Councilman Carl Stokes had introduced a bill that would set a schedule for such audits, but the city’s law department says the council does not have authority to set audits. The auditors report to City Comptroller Joan Pratt.

While the city charter says that agencies should be audited regularly, it does not prescribe a specific interval for the checks to occur. Finance officials say biannual audits would be too expensive.

“I am disturbed to learn that some agencies haven’t been audited going back 40 some years,” said committee chair Councilwoman Helen Holton.

The city’s budget chief, Andrew Kleine, said that the city did not have the funds to audit all 55 agencies every other year. “Not every agency, board, or commission needs to be audited on a certain cycle,” he said.

O’Doherty said Rawlings-Blake supports regular audits and has boosted funding for the audit department.

City auditor Robert L. McCarty acknowledged that there are six open positions for auditors. He said plans were underway to hire two, but that the city’s pay scale is not competitive with other jurisdictions.

McCarty said that audits were very time-consuming. For example, an annual audit of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system requires the efforts of two or three auditors for four months, he said.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young recommended that the matter be placed before voters on the November ballot.

From The Baltimore Sun.

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