As Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke presses the case for his proposed income tax increase, the financially strapped city continues to spend millions in programs and services born in the halcyon days before the tax base began to deteriorate.
And as the various sides in the budget-tax debate square off, questions will almost certainly be raised over just how much of those millions can be cut.
The prospect of savings does not definitively resolve the issue of whether a tax increase is needed. But it does provide possible alternatives to the cuts the mayor has proposed if the tax increase does not pass.
And it suggests that even if the tax increase is enacted, Baltimore could still pare spending on those programs to focus more of its resources on public safety, education and economic development -- three key areas everyone agrees must be boosted to rejuvenate the city's economy.
A review of the proposed $2.3 billion budget has isolated several areas of incidental spending. Among them:
Fourteen government field offices scattered throughout the city that provide information on services to residents.
A South Baltimore gallery that offers subsidized working space for artists and art classes for students and adults.
An obscure, four-person commission "to promote societal and institutional change for women in Baltimore." Still more money could be saved by reducing trash collections in parts of the city; merging agencies involved in tourism and promotion; slashing scholarships given out by elected officials; and cutting employees' out-of-town travel.
And then there are the budgeted increases for the office of the mayor and the City Council totaling $1 million -- as well as an extra $4 million for budget reserves.
The budget review did not include Baltimore's school system, since under state law the city cannot reduce its level of support; thus any savings there would not affect the tax debate.
How Baltimore allocates its money is drawing increased scrutiny this year because of Mayor Schmoke's desire to raise in January the city's piggyback income tax rate, calculated as a percentage of the state levy, from 50 percent to 55 percent.
Mr. Schmoke said the money from the tax increase, estimated at $4.9 million in the last half of the fiscal year that begins July 1, is needed to partially offset declining local revenue. That figure is about six-tenths of 1 percent of the city's $800 million general fund, made up mostly of local revenues. Without that money, the mayor said sharp cutbacks would have to be made in the budgets of several agencies, notably the Baltimore Museum of Art, Enoch Pratt Free Library and Department of Parks and Recreation.
Even while he argues for a tax boost this year, Mr. Schmoke acknowledges that over the long haul the city must continue to make the kind of cuts that have led to a 10 percent reduction in the city work force and the consolidation of several agencies during his 8 1/2 -year tenure in office. Some agencies are targeted for cuts again this year even with the revenue from the tax increase.
"We've gone from a city of 950,000 to 700,000, and we're going to have to make reductions in government to reflect that," Mr. Schmoke said recently.
In a series of community meetings last week, the mayor outlined two possible areas of consolidations. One is to reduce the number of branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and concentrate resources in the central library and remaining branches. The other is to reduce the number of city field offices from 14 to nine. But a mayoral spokesman said the reductions would not begin to be made until sometime during the new fiscal year, and hence the budget did not reflect any savings from them.
A citizens' group that monitors city taxes and spending says the reductions aren't far enough or fast enough.
"Our concern is that the city has got to act like a city with a smaller and smaller budget," said Daniel J. Loden, a founder of the Baltimore Taxpayers' Coalition, which opposes the tax increase.
A case in point: the 14 government field offices, known as "neighborhood hubs."
The offices -- which offer referrals of assistance to city and nonprofit agencies -- trace their lineage back to mayor's stations created under former Mayor William Donald Schaefer. They also have taken on some of the functions of an anti-poverty agency the mayor disbanded three years ago.
Funded by a combination of city, state and federal funds, the offices, which are in the midst of another announced reorganization, are budgeted at $4.9 million. Salaries and benefits for the 14 directors -- political appointees who make between $32,800 and $41,000 a year -- total $621,000.
Reducing the number of hubs to six immediately -- one per councilmanic district and three less than the mayor wants -- could cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses.