Comptroller Bill Henry took over as Baltimore’s financial watchdog about a year ago after defeating his predecessor, Joan Pratt, by portraying the six-term incumbent as indifferent to her role as financial steward.
Since taking over, Henry said, his team has made significant changes in the office’s culture. While work remains, he said, the staff is better positioned to review agenda items before the city spending board, has completed critical technology upgrades, and placed greater emphasis on “customer service.”
“It’s one thing to set big picture goals that might take five, 10, 15 years for when the city needs to be doing something transformative. But when we’re talking about literally changing the way we do stuff, when we’re talking about administrative procedures, get it done in a (single) term because you’re not promised a second one,” Henry said.
Henry recently sat down with The Daily Record for an interview. The following is edited for length and clarity.
The Daily Record: What changes have you made that have turned the comptroller’s office into a better fiscal watchdog?
Bill Henry: In the last year, we’ve rearranged staffing to have half as many people focused on the administrative tasks of drafting and assembling the agenda, and we’ve doubled the number of content reviewers. So we’re putting more resources into analysis and critical review.
The comptroller is the chief accountability officer. That’s the point of the comptroller on the Board of Estimates. The comptroller is the executive function independent from the mayor to, basically, be the people’s eyes and ears on the Board of Estimates.
We deal with agencies each week, agencies bringing different issues before the board for approval, and 99% of these agencies don’t report to the comptroller. But they know that when we raise issues and question items, we’re speaking for the people.
TDR: What does changing the culture mean in the comptroller’s office? How much of that is related to needing technological upgrades?
Henry: We’re down to one typewriter that doesn’t get hardly ever used in the central office.
I think (the Office of Real Estate) also has one squirreled away for when they get the rare form they’re not comfortable altering electronically. (laughs)
The other culture change I started to talk about (especially in regards to) real estate and telecommunications is that I’ve tried to impress a strong value for (customer service) in approaching our jobs.
One thing that bugged me about (the Office of Real Estate) was that it seemed like they were only concerned with getting the highest purchase price when people were trying to buy city property.
Sometimes the best thing for a community is for the development to happen, even with a smaller upfront purchase price.
TDR: Is there a way to ensure that you also means-test these developers while quickly getting properties out of city hands?
Henry: From the comptroller’s perspective, this is (something) I hope will change, but right now, the comptroller’s office doesn’t have access to very many of those kinds of properties.
So when we’re working with developers, we’re not working with people coming in to do eight-digit (dollar) projects with dozens of acres in size or anything like that.
We have about 1,300 or 1,400 individual lots. I don’t know that any of them are bigger than a regular house kind of size, and then we have a lot of tax sale certificates for other houses that people can buy and then use to foreclose.
So we’re not really in a position to do that kind of developer-based assessment.
TDR: Do you think the comptroller, council president, or mayor should be appointing people to the Inspector General advisory board?
Henry: I don’t remember whose commentary this was, but they were saying, “Well, you don’t want to have the people on the IG Advisory Board worrying about the IG investigating their friends.”
I get that, but you don’t have to be an elected official or appointee of an elected official to be friends with someone who might get investigated by the IG. (laughs)
It reminds me of the conversations around how we should be doing redistricting. How do you put together a completely independent redistricting commission?
It’s the same idea. At some point, somebody has to pick people. I don’t know how to get around the fact in a representative democracy; the whole point is constituents choose elected officials to make decisions on their behalf.
Much of the controversy surrounding this is because of a public conflict between the IG and (certain) elected officials. If that conflict didn’t exist, I don’t think we would be having this conversation.
TDR: In the year you’ve been comptroller, is there a particular agency or issue that repeatedly comes up as a concern?
Henry: The city’s purchasing system seriously needs to be revamped.
There are good people (at the Bureau of Procurement) trying to do good work. But the system is just antiquated, and in the same way that I need to be modernizing my office and changing its culture, I think purchasing needs that effort.
The mayor knows that. The mayor and I talked about that during the transition last fall.
TDR: Is there anything that we didn’t get to you’d like to discuss?
Henry: Our real estate office is leading a citywide review of all of the city’s real estate-based functions.
Different agencies have grown over the years to do jobs that, as recently as 60 years ago, were entirely expected to be done by the Office of Real Estate.
My understanding is when (William Donald) Schaefer was council president and then mayor, he didn’t get along with Comptroller (Hyman Pressman)so well.
A lot of the time, what (Schaefer) would do is put stuff in City Code (instead of amending the City Charter). I think I heard this best described as “a tiny loophole that you can drive a truck through.”
So, the Office of Real Estate now handles all real estate dealings for the city, except those involving economic or community development.
It’s not hard to say anything involving buying, selling, or developing property is a matter of economic and community development.
(Also) external stakeholders in the city have become increasingly frustrated over the years with how difficult it is to work with the city on real estate-related matters.
We’ve talked to the mayor and city administrator. They’re on board with the idea this should be simpler, more straightforward, and less dysfunctional.
So we’re going to figure that out throughout 2022.