Is budget getting down to basic Baltimore?

November 22, 1991|By Martin C. Evans and Sandy Banisky Ann LoLordo of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke gave Baltimore stunningly bad budget news: layoffs and program cuts throughout the city. But now it appears two of the most startling reductions -- a shorter school year and massive Fire Department layoffs -- will not happen.

The fire unions yesterday agreed, in return for keeping jobs, to forgo a pay raise they won in binding arbitration earlier this year. The teachers' union is discussing alternatives to a weeklong school closing. Mr. Schmoke will find other, less dramatic cutbacks in the fire and school departments. The crises that made headlines haven't disappeared, but they appear to have been defused.

So what was Mr. Schmoke up to when he called a news conference heavy with ominous financial forecasts?

The mayor, never eager to discuss his political philosophies publicly, will say little about how he settled on his plan to cut $27.2 million from the city budget.

"I don't think a lot of people are interested in how I made those decisions. I think a few people like you may be interested," Mr. Schmoke told a reporter. "I think I've been to more community association meetings than you have in the last few days and I haven't heard much interest in how I made my decisions."

But some elected officials and City Hall observers see Mr. Schmoke's dramatic budget-cutting plan as an announcement to city unions and to state lawmakers that Baltimore is serious about changing the way it spends its money.

"Just to consider [school closings] shows how desperate the situation is," said City Councilman Wilbur E. Cunningham, D-3rd. "Sometimes you have to use a 2-by-4 and smack 'em upside the head. If he wanted to catch everyone's attention, he's done it.

"People always say the city's crying wolf. Well, the city's not crying wolf," Mr. Cunningham said. "He's got people's attention. And good for him."

But the drastic cuts are what Mr. Cunningham calls "a Band-Aid approach." Now, "we've got to finally look at our services. Restructuringhas to come with this next budget year. Band-Aid approaches until then, and then we've got to change the way we do business."

Indeed, Mr. Schmoke has promised to streamline city government to better operate in a new financial and political world. Baltimore is home to fewer people. Its political clout in Annapolis continues to decline. It can no longer pay for services it began providing people in the wealthier 1970s and 1980s.

Last weekend, the mayor and his Cabinet spent two days in a retreat to assess how Baltimore's government can reinvent itself -- providing some essential services and cutting away those that are no longer affordable. The changes, some observers say, will be profound.

The issue of "downsizing" city government has been a priority of Mr. Schmoke's since he took office. In fact, the bureaucracy has shrunk by 3,000 positions, which the mayor proudly points out he has accomplished with few layoffs.

But with the city payroll already pared down and an overhaul of the state tax structure -- which would provide more state revenue for the city -- ever more elusive, Mr. Schmoke is faced with having to look closely at his government and its responsibilities.

The basics, elected officials and observers say, include education, fire protection, police protection and public works services. Mayor Schmoke is questioning how well those agencies do their jobs. Beyond that, he will review whether other agencies should survive.

"Functions," explained mayoral spokesman Clinton R. Coleman. "Do we need city government in its current configuration? That includes agencies as they currently exist. Do citizens really expect government to be in the business of delivering this particular service [or that service]?"

Councilman Cunningham said, "The city is forced to do now what it should have done years ago: find out what services are essential, deliver those services as efficiently as possible, and cut out the things we can't do anymore."

City Hall observers who leaf through the budget books have some ideas as to what's a frill and what's a necessity. Among their questions:

* Can the city afford to spend more than $1 million annually to pay salaries and other expenses for the Mayor's Commission on Arts and Culture?

* Should taxpayers be paying $173,000 to run the Commission for Women, which is responsible for "promotion of equal rights of women," when the $1 million Community Relations Commission is responsible for doing the same thing -- as are the city's law office and affirmative action officers in each of the city's major agencies?

* Can the city afford $1.3 million for Channel 44, the city's cable television channel, which broadcasts City Council meetings and a weekly show of which the mayor is host?

* Should the city be paying $161,800 for the Office of International Programs, which promotes Baltimore's Sister Cities ties with nine cities overseas?

* Can the city afford $4.3 million to finance the Office of Civic Promotion's annual grants for various festivals and parades?

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