ANNAPOLIS -- Despite operating costs expected to increase by millions of dollars, a Senate committee chairman said yesterday he was committed to passing an administration bill allowing the state to take over the Baltimore City Jail.
"I think we'll support the takeover," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "We know it's going to cost, but we're willing to take that step."
At a committee hearing on the bill yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said his city's finances were in such poor shape that soon he might be forced to choose between buying books for schoolchildren or paying for jail cells.
Mayor Schmoke urged committee members to support other bills for the state to take over costs for operating the Circuit Court, the state's attorney's office and the city's Sheriff's Department.
"We make those proposals because we believe the operation of those facilities could be done more efficiently by the state and would bring long-term fiscal relief to the city," Mayor Schmoke said.
Stuart O. Simms, Baltimore state's attorney, and Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, also spoke in favor of having the state help fund the city's criminal justice system.
While Senator Levitan was supportive of the jail takeover, he was not nearly as enthusiastic about the other initiatives for Baltimore. Following testimony on the Circuit Court, he said: "I don't know what we can do for you, but we'll see what we can do."
Ensuring passage of the jail takeover bill is one of the prime goals of Baltimore legislators for this year's General Assembly session. Since 1985, annual operating costs for the jail have more than doubled, going from $18.5 million to $39.2 million.
According to the state Department of Fiscal Services, those operating costs could rise to almost $53 million by fiscal year 1996. Should the state take over the jail, the department estimated that a planned 800-bed addition could cost another $15 million.
Committee members did not voice any concern about those costs.
Though Baltimore legislators hailed the administration's bill to take over the jail, they said they were concerned about the fate of the jail's 842 employees.
The employees, including 542 jail guards, do not support the takeover. They have referred to themselves as "sacrificial lambs" and have said they do not like the prospect of losing their union's collective bargaining rights.
Sen. John A. Pica, Jr., D-Baltimore, urged the committee to pay close attention to the employees. "We don't want to disturb the enactment of this legislation," he said. "But . . . they have some legitimate concerns."