Even as Baltimore's fiscal crisis threatens to shut schools for a week, halt the hiring of new police officers and permanently close a quarter of the city's libraries, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says there is no assurance that help is on the way.
"I was talking to Governor [William Donald] Schaefer," Schmoke said. "And he says, that as he travels around the state, he hears no consensus for new taxes. . . . People outside of Baltimore simply have not felt the pain."
Baltimore is unable to raise revenues independently, because its tax rate is the highest in Maryland. That leaves the city dependent on a reluctant state legislature. Without new revenues, Schmoke has one option: cut spending.
On Friday, Schmoke announced a drastic series of cuts to deal with a $27.1 million reduction in state aid to the city. The cuts abolish 571 city jobs and hit virtually every agency.
But, while the state cuts are rocking Baltimore, they are spreading lesser ripples of concern elsewhere. While two of the state's wealthier counties, Anne Arundel and Howard, have imposed layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, many other jurisdictions have been able to deal with state budget cuts without drastic effect on employees.
Asked yesterday whether the city's action will create a new impetus for tax increases, Del. R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., speaker of the House of Delegates, flatly said, "No."
Mitchell said he had no time to explain. But he has said the drastic nature of the city's budget cuts -- mainly the plan to close schools for a week -- strike him as political posturing aimed at creating public sentiment for higher taxes.
The mayor denied playing politics. Essential services -- fire, police, public works, education -- make up the vast bulk of the budget: "There is really nowhere else to go to get this kind of dollar savings."
For instance, the plan to close schools for a week this winter is projected to save the city $7.5 million. In going that route, Schmoke overlooked about $10 million in other possible cuts school officials offered. He said many of those would further deflate already sagging morale among teachers, who were forced to forgo a negotiated 6 percent raise this year. He said they may be needed to cope with the next round of state cuts.
But Schmoke acknowledged that the actions he announced Friday are more than a response to crisis. They are the first steps in a major streamlining of city government that is needed to deal with the city's long-term financial woes, the mayor said.
"We intend to reorganize how we do business in the city government," Schmoke said, saying there will be even more reductions and consolidations in the next city budget.
That budget plan is likely to eliminate city funding for many recreation centers; further pare the school systems' administrative staff; consolidate Urban Services centers with neighborhood mayor's stations; and combine elements of the Department of Housing and Community Development with the Planning Department, according to the mayor and city budget officials.
Last week's cuts will close seven of 28 branch libraries. The library board is to decide this week which branches to close. And the ones shut down likely never will reopen, the mayor and library officials said.
"There is a recognition that there needs to be some downsizing )) of the system," said Anna A. Curry, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Some library branches now are understaffed and open on an erratic basis. With fewer branches, Curry said, the hope is that the city will be able to provide first-class service in remaining neighborhood branches.
The plan called for closing the central Pratt on Fridays, furloughing all library employees for six days and eliminating 40 jobs.
Schmoke's cuts will bring permanent reductions to the Fire Department, an agency long considered overstaffed by budget analysts but politically immune from major cuts. The cuts will close five firehouses, dry-dock one of two fireboats and eliminate 252 firefighting jobs. But fire officials said cuts should have a small impact on public safety.
"The average response time now is within 1.56 minutes of being
called," said Capt. Patrick Flynn, a Fire Department spokesman. "The national average is over 2.5. Under the new plan, response time should be 1.7 minutes."
Prosecutors in the state's attorney's office will be furloughed six days.
"We picked days that should not have a severe impact on the court system," said State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms. He said all furlough days are holidays or close to holidays, when the court calendar is light.
The Police Department is forced to impose a hiring freeze and stop most purchases. This comes as the force is operating some 80 officers below its authorized strength.