Saying he wants to avert massive layoffs, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said today he is imposing a salary freeze on the city's entire 28,000-person work force for the fiscal year beginning in July.
The freeze is expected to close $38 million of the anticipated $54.1 million city budget gap for next year. But it also was met with anger by city employee unions who have been negotiating with Schmoke over ways to trim the revenue shortfall.
"Our membership had high expectations for the 6 percent wage increase we had negotiated just months ago," said Glenard Middleton, president of the 6,000-member Baltimore Municipal Employees Union. "It was one of the best raises we ever had. If they didn't have the money, they shouldn't have offered it to us."
Speaking to reporters at a news breakfast today, Schmoke said he expected the union sentiment.
But, he added, "Nobody was going to voluntarily give up their raises, because they deserved them. Of course, nobody anticipated the quick and deep recession" that has caused city revenues to fall way short of projections.
Schmoke said the city last imposed a wage freeze in fiscal 1978.
Schmoke added that he is attempting to negotiate an agreement with employee unions to enable them to recoup the loss when the city's financial picture improves.
Without the freeze, Schmoke said, 2,009 city employees would have begun receiving layoff notices today. Schmoke said a layoff of that magnitude would disrupt city services and plunge people into unemployment in a weak job market.
"I didn't want to put a lot of people out of work because I don't think they will easily find work in the private sector," Schmoke said.
Even with the wage freeze, Schmoke said, there could be employee layoffs this July. The scope of them, he said, will be determined by the final outcome of the General Assembly session and council action on repealing the container tax. If the tax is repealed, it would widen the city's revenue gap by $6 million.
The freeze means that Schmoke will not budget for the increases. And once the money is not in the budget, there will be no raises.
Schmoke also discussed education issues at the session.
The mayor warned that a Schaefer administration bill skimming local education aid to pay for state programs could spark a lawsuit over school funding disparities around the state.
State officials say the money diverted by the bill would be used to help local schools under the state's School For Success program.
But local officials oppose it as a cut in the state's contribution to the APEX school funding mechanism, which is supposed to boost the state's share of education spending each year.
"If the state backs away further from its commitment to APEX, it's almost inviting advocates for education to take the state to court," said Schmoke.
Schmoke said he has held off on filing a funding equalization suit for almost three years in hopes that the state would equalize spending through the APEX program.
The mayor has told superintendents from other poor districts that he would not file such a suit without consulting with them -- but warned that private advocates may go ahead with a suit anyway.
Schmoke also blasted this week's suggestion by the Greater Baltimore Committee that the state consider taking over the Baltimore school system if dramatic measures fail to improve the schools in coming years.
"I found that obnoxious," said Schmoke. "I think my friends at the GBC this time have done us a disservice by encouraging that kind of discussion."