Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had a pleasant surprise yesterday for Baltimore's museum-goers, fans of the symphony and thousands schoolchildren: More money.
Just as the city's 58 recreation centers and high-profile cultural institutions were bracing for painful budget cuts, Schmoke announced he had managed to come up with $3 million.
The windfall from the city's rebounding real estate market will permit him to limit some of his most unpopular reductions only nine days after this year's bitterly contested budget went into effect.
The money came from taxes generated by a higher-than-normal volume of sales.
The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore Museum of Art and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will receive larger grants. The Department of Recreation and Parks, which stood to lose $5.4 million, got $1.9 million back. The third beneficiary is the Child First Authority, an after-school program that wasn't facing any cuts but got $600,000.
In making his "targeted restorations," Schmoke said he chose those programs that would have "a significant benefit to a large number of people in the city."
But he cautioned that the last-minute infusion is a fraction of the $2.4 billion budget, balanced after a convoluted showdown with the City Council over taxes and spending, and "doesn't restore us to where we were."
Museum and symphony administrators, who had been scrambling to pare their own budgets, were relieved. Parent groups and parks advocates were cautiously optimistic.
But the leaders of several smaller civic and artistic organizations complained that they should have shared the surplus because they will be most devastated by the cutbacks.
"We've received less funds over the years," said Edward Smith, chairman of the board of Arena Players, who was infuriated that the city's largess only went to big-name institutions.
"So to do less with less slaps us in the face."
As many as 18 other groups, from Center Stage to the Maryland Historical Society, Handel Choir and Baltimore Museum of Industry, will lose subsidies this year because the budget halves the city's $2.03 million commitment to the arts.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has an annual budget of about $18 million, stood to get $176,221 less.
But now, half the amount, $88,111, has been restored.
"It's a tremendous help," said John Gidwitz, the executive director.
"We've worked extremely hard to keep our costs very flat, very low.
"This gives us a better shot at being able to balance our budget for next year; we were just beside ourselves trying to figure it out.
"We're very, very appreciative."
Money means options
The Walters Art Gallery was considering limiting the viewing hours for its world-renowned Asian art collection to cope with a loss of $562,307 in its annual budget of $8.8 million.
Now, it has more options with an additional $281,154.
The timing is also right for the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was worried about a $250,000 cut as it prepares to stage an exhibit of decorative arts from London, "Treasures of the Victoria & Albert Museum."
It, too, is getting half the money back.
Some community and cultural leaders were skeptical about the mayor's last-minute discovery of the desperately needed few million dollars.
They also were frustrated that their organizations are so often used in the budget battles that have become a city rite.
"We can't keep going through this exercise year after year. It's ridiculous," said Mary Sloan Roby, a leader of Saving Parks and Recs, a new coalition fighting to protect the embattled recreation department.
Clash with City Council
This spring, Schmoke proposed sharp cuts to cultural and recreational centers after being rebuffed in his efforts to raise taxes to provide a steady source of income for the financially strapped city.
The City Council passed its own reductions, hoping to pressure the mayor into putting the money back.
But Schmoke refused and let the cuts stand.
The extra $3 million, which comes from the 1.5 percent assessment on property transfers and recording fees, is the second unexpected surplus in two years.
In 1996, Schmoke was able to deal fairly painlessly with a $31 million deficit when Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland refunded $25.2 million -- just as the city was preparing for top-to-bottom cuts.
"It's amazing how we find money when we have to," said Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who wants the mayor to restore more of the cuts.
Worry about restructuring
Parks advocates, while grateful for the additional money, were more worried by a broader restructuring of the agency.
Yesterday morning, more than a dozen people protested as the city's Board of Estimates approved dismantling the construction division.
The board voted 4-1, with Bell dissenting, to transfer the head of the capital program and an assistant to the Department of Public Works.
Six other administrators have been laid off.
"They've always been environmentally friendly," said Lynn Kramer, president of the Herring Run Watershed Association.
"We don't want to see that lost by people who cut down trees and mow everything in sight."
Trying to reassure the protesters, who fear that the city's 6,500 acres of parkland are at risk, Schmoke promised to consult with them in conducting a management study of the agency and hiring a new director.
The last director, Marlyn J. Perritt, resigned under fire last month.
Pub Date: 7/10/97