'Not Out of the Woods Yet'

April 18, 1992

So precarious is the fiscal status of Baltimore City that when this week's preliminary budget turned out to be less than a disaster, a mood of delirium overtook the Board of Estimates. "I feel very good. I feel like I have come out of a long tunnel," City Council President Mary Pat Clarke gushed. As other members joined this chorus, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had to interrupt: "Folks, we are not out of the woods yet."

His caution is well placed. The Finance Department's conservative proposal for a $1.86 billion spending plan contains rTC no tax increases or major cuts in services. But it is only a starting point. It is built on a number of shaky assumptions.

For instance, it recommends that for the second year in a row no municipal workers be granted salary increases. This will be tested in court, though, when the firefighters' union demands that its pay settlement, achieved through arbitration but disregarded by the city, be honored. Should the court decide in the firefighters' favor, that could open the floodgates for pay demands, costing millions of dollars, from other municipal workers, even though they do not have arbitrated contracts.

"I think it is important to understand that this is just preliminary. There are still a lot of open issues that we have to discuss," Mr. Schmoke noted. He said his administration's mission during the fiscal year starting in July would be to continue downsizing municipal government as well as initiating a broad reorganization by merging the public works and transportation departments.

To taxpayers engulfed by much troubling news recently, the budget proposal offers some reassurance. In just a few months, the police department should have 163 more officers than it had a year ago. And while some 10 recreation centers are slated for closing, there is enough money in the budget to keep five endangered branches of the Enoch Pratt Library open.

Because of increased state aid, the school budget would increase $33.4 million -- despite a $5.8 million cut in direct city funding. This cut could prove to be a politically costly mistake because many Washington-area legislators may feel they were misled into supporting Baltimore's education needs at a time when the city itself was reducing funding. We urge that the mayor avoid antagonisms in Annapolis by restoring this $5.8 million to the schools by juggling funds.

In the next few weeks, the Board of Estimates and the City Council will have tough political decisions to make as they fine-tune the budget proposal. The biggest decision concerns the possibility of raising the piggyback income tax. For competitive reasons, Baltimore City cannot act on this question alone. It will watch carefully what happens in the region's counties.

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