Lean spending plan in city maintains fiscal status quo Proposed budget would hold the line on taxes, spending.

April 17, 1991|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Evening Sun Staff

A $9.9 million state grant and a wage freeze helped the city to avoid layoffs and cuts in services, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said today as next year's $2.07 billion billion budget was presented to the Board of Estimates.

The mayor thanked city employee unions for agreeing to the wage freeze, which saved $38.1 million. Schmoke said the state takeover of the City Jail "will help us tremendously down the road."

"Now we need to work with the General Assembly as it looks at restructuring the state's tax system," he said. "Given our dwindling local revenue base, we are going to need even more long-range help."

The state legislature is studying recommendations from the Linowes Commission that would raise $800 million in revenue from new taxes, the bulk of that money earmarked for Baltimore and the poorer counties.

The city's budget proposal maintains the current property tax rate as well as holds the line on services and avoids layoffs.

The proposed operating budget of $1.787 billion shows a spending increase of $34.4 million, or 1.8 percent, over the current fiscal year, one of the lowest increases in nearly 10 years.

The proposed $266.4 million capital budget increases spending by 6 percent over the current fiscal year.

Overall, the combined budget, recommended to Schmoke by the city finance department, increases spending by only 2.3 percent over the current budget. If would take effect July 1.

Budget Director Edward J. Gallagher, who unveiled the spending plan yesterday, said that a wage freeze, which saves the city $38.1 million; the elimination of 238 mostly vacant positions; and a special state grant of $9.9 million were the keys to closing a projected $54.1 million revenue shortfall and balancing the proposed budget that would fund both operating expenses and capital projects.

The city's property tax rate would stay at the current $5.95 for each $100 of assessed value.

Released by the budget office late yesterday, the proposed spending plan went to the Board of Estimates today. The board will hear agency appeals the rest of this month before it makes any revisions and approves the budget. A taxpayer night is planned for April 30.

The mayor will then present his budget to the council in early May, and the council has until June 30 to adopt it. Under the city charter, the council can only cut the budget; it can not transfer or add funds.

The preliminary budget held little in the way of surprises. Agency budgets were either increased or decreased only slightly under Finance Department recommendations.

Under the proposed budget:

* The number of police and fire personnel would remain virtually unchanged.

* Present school class sizes would be maintained.

pTC * The rat eradication program would be reduced because of the loss of state aid.

* There would be no new closings of recreation centers or library branches.

But the proposed budget does paint a bleak picture. The anticipated growth of general fund revenue for 1992 is 1.3 percent, or $10.1 million, the lowest increase since 1983, Gallagher said.

And, the amount of money generated by the property tax is expected to be around $471.9 million, or an increase of 3.3 percent, over last year. The normal rate of increase from one year to the next has averaged around 5 percent, said Gallagher.

Income tax revenues would increase an anemic 1.5 percent because a sluggish economy has resulted in layoffs in the private sector and business failures, according to Gallagher.

Projected real estate recordation and transfer taxes of $16 million would amount to a decrease of 18.7 percent from last year, reflecting a downturn in the housing market, he said.

"We've pared city personnel down to an exceedingly thin level over the last three years," Gallagher said. "If the revenue picture isn't changed next year, we are looking at reduction or elimination of some services."

Through a hiring freeze that has been in place since December 1989, the city has eliminated more than 1,500 positions, Gallagher said.

A big help, Gallagher said, was the state takeover of the jail, which saved the city about $38.5 million. But the city had to give up $37.7 in police aid as part of the deal.

"Although for this year, the saving is a wash, the jail's budget was growing by about 12 percent a year so the saving down the road will be substantial," Gallagher said.

If the current property tax rate is maintained, Schmoke will not realize his hopes for a 10-cent reduction.

Two years ago, the council embarked on a three-year plan to reduce the tax rate -- at that time $6 -- by 15 cents. Five cents was shaved off the rate for fiscal 1990 but last year, the mayor asked to the council not to make another 5-cent reduction. In return, Schmoke said he would try to find a way to reduce the rate by 10 cents this year.

Gallagher pointed out that there is tax relief for residential property owners that equals a 3-cent reduction in the rate.

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