In a private meeting with city union leaders yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said Baltimore may again face "significant" layoffs this year because of a projected budget shortfall that could exceed $50 million.
Afterward, the mayor declined to say how large a shortfall the city must make up to balance the budget before the fiscal year ends June 30, saying only that he expects it to exceed the deficit of about $48 million that was projected for last year.
A union official who attended the meeting, Don W. Helms, president of Lodge No. 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the mayor projected a deficit of $54.1 million.
"We think our fiscal position will have an impact on our public employees," the mayor said as he emerged from the meeting. "If we had to close that gap without state help -- significant state help -- we would have to have significant layoffs."
The mayor said he called the meeting to convey to union leaders the gravity of the city's fiscal plight, but stopped short of announcing any specific course of action, such as layoffs or a wage freeze.
The mayor and budget officials so far have steadfastly refused to say how many workers the city might have to fire to close the budget gap, saying that they do not want to alarm the city's roughly 29,000 employees before they have a clear picture of how many layoffs would be needed.
But faced with a similar gap last year, officials prepared plans to lay off 900 to 1,000 employees in what would have been the largest work-force reduction in Baltimore history.
The city managed to avoid virtually all those layoffs, however, through a combination of state aid, increases in a number of nuisance taxes and the continuation of a job freeze.
Union leaders emerged from yesterday's meeting saying that although they were somewhat sympathetic to the city's fiscal plight, they are not ready to ask their memberships to accept Draconian measures, such as layoffs or wage freezes.
"I think it's fair to say we don't want to do anything detrimental to the city," said Lillian L. Nolley, president of the 1,200-member Managerial and Professional Society.
"But at the same time, we have to survive."
"It's poor-mouth, the same song they sing every year," said Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of the Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734.
The mayor's bleak financial message comes just as some of the unions are gearing up for contract negotiations.
"This comes at a tough time for us," said Mr. Helms of the FOP lodge, which will begin talks with city negotiators at the end of January.
The mayor said layoffs could be minimized if the state's Linowes commission's tax reforms are adopted or if the state takes over the city jail as Governor William Donald Schaefer proposed last Friday.
The mayor's plea already shows signs of having produced splits among the various unions.
After the meeting, Mr. DeLisle said that firefighters should be protected from layoffs, but that the city might consider laying off workers in other departments.
He noted that a study published in City and State Magazine ranked Baltimore as having the second-highest number of employees per 1,000 citizens of the 50 largest U.S. cities.
"I don't think the city has ever made an assessment of what services they want to provide and whether they have too many people on the payroll," Mr. DeLisle said.
Unlike other cities, Baltimore is required by law to balance its budget each year, which has forced on a succession of mayors the task of scrambling to find ways of saving money at the end of the fiscal year.
Over the years, the threat of layoffs has been a familiar part of the budget process, along with threatened closings of libraries and fire stations.
The threats often melt away, however, as various constituencies pressure elected officials to protect their favored interests.
Last week, city budget chief Edward J. Gallagher said that slow home sales could cost the city several million dollars in lost real estate transfer taxes. Meanwhile, the city is facing higher than anticipated labor costs, including an unexpected $2 million in overtime for the fire department alone.