City budget ax hits bone School, library, museum closings, furloughs loom

November 09, 1991|By Martin C. Evans | Martin C. Evans,SUN GRAPHICS/JOSEPH HUTCHINSON

Warning that the worst may be yet to come, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he will balance Baltimore's shrinking budget with a series of draconian cost-cutting measures, including closing schools for a week.

The mayor's budget-cutting ax cut a wide swath through city government, from the Fire Department to the Baltimore Museum of Art to the Enoch Pratt Free Library. In all, 571 jobs are to be eliminated.

"I just tried to look for the fairest way of spreading the pain, and all of this is painful," said Mr. Schmoke, who is struggling to close a $27.2 million gap in the city budget. "The public will begin to feel this next week."

Cheryl Boykins-Glenn, president of the roughly 5,300-member City Union of Baltimore, said that while she sympathized with the mayor, she was concerned that the further loss of city services will leave Baltimore "like a ghost town."

"We'll wind up like Detroit," Ms. Boykins-Glenn said. "The citizens of Maryland need to understand we are all in this together."

Mr. Schmoke said he hoped that his drastic actions would put pressure on Annapolis to restore state aid to the city, and he urged parents to lobby for tax reform and other means to help Baltimore.

City officials have been warning of the possibility of deep cuts in services since Oct. 1, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced that a $450 million shortfall in the state budget would force him to withhold more than $20 million in aid targeted for Baltimore.

Mr. Schmoke said he was told by Governor Schaefer on Thursday to expect a second round of state cuts in December, which he said might force further reductions in city services.

The cuts announced yesterday were far more sweeping than any in recent history:

* The Fire Department, which must eliminate 252 jobs, faces its first budget-related layoffs ever. The department must also close five firehouses and deactivate 13 fire companies and a fireboat.

* The library system will be forced to eliminate seven of its 28 branches, close the main branch on Cathedral Street one day per week, eliminate 40 jobs, and tell its remaining employees to stay home six days without pay. The Pratt's board of trustees will decide Wednesday which branches to close.

* The Baltimore Museum of Art, which is staging a major exhibition of the works of French Impressionist painter Claude Monet, will close for two weeks after the show ends Jan. 19.

* The cuts eliminated an employee assistance plan set up to help city workers cope with various problems, including stress.

* The Police Department will be spared layoffs, although it must maintain a hiring freeze and do without non-essential purchases.

Teachers and other school employees will be forced to go without pay when the school system shuts down completely for one week. Although a date for the furlough has not been set, the mayor said it would come sometime during the winter -- perhaps around Presidents' Day in February -- when the city would save the most on heating costs.

Trying to put the best spin on grim news, the mayor said that the time off from school would give children time for independent study and that they would be required to write book reports that week.

The severity of the mayor's actions caught some community leaders off-guard.

"Wow," said Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, upon learning of the mayor's plans to close schools for a week. "All of these things make it harder to market Baltimore."

"A last resort for us would have been to close schools," said Gary Rodwell of Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development, an organization that has lobbied the mayor for increased support of the school system. "On the surface, it is certainly frightening."

The cuts announced yesterday are the first of two major budget revisions by the mayor to cope with a budget squeezed between a shrinking tax base and the need to supply services for a disproportionately large share of Maryland's neediest residents.

Mr. Schmoke, who said Baltimore's government remains much larger than those of similarly-sized cities such as Cleveland, said he plans to "remake" the city bureaucracy this spring by consolidating agencies that duplicate services.

Already, however, several obstacles have emerged that could thwart the mayor's efforts.

The city is required by state law to keep schools open a minimum of 180 days per year, barring a natural or civil disaster. The city would have to get a waiver to close schools for a week, which would shorten the school year to 175 days.

Meanwhile, teachers union officials have said they may try to block the furlough as a violation of their contract.

The officials said members made significant concessions to the city less than six months ago and are not ready to make more. Last spring, the union agreed not to seek a pay increase for its 6,700 teachers and to forgo an already-approved 6 percent pay increase for its 1,800 paraprofessionals.

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