Schmoke budget would cut 600 jobs

Proposal for 2000 down $6.6 million from current plan 'City is at a crossroads'

April 01, 1999|By GERARD SHIELDS | GERARD SHIELDS,SUN STAFF

Baltimore will eliminate 600 city positions over the next 18 months to avoid a budget deficit, according to a preliminary spending plan introduced yesterday.

City Budget Director Edward J. Gallagher called the 2000 budget he delivered to the city's Board of Estimates the toughest in his 17-year career. Finances are being sapped by stagnating tax income because of population losses, leaving the city struggling to maintain basic services such as trash collection and housing inspections, Gallagher said.

The 2000 budget is the last from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who is not seeking a fourth four-year term. The spending plan almost guarantees that Schmoke will leave his successor with a zero bank balance, little financial room to maneuver and tough spending choices.

"The city is at a crossroads from a policy and political point of view," said Gallagher, who became budget chief in 1981 under Mayor William Donald Schaefer. "The city will have to decide what services we provide year after year."

The $1.8 billion city budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is $6.6 million less than this fiscal year's budget.

Many of the 600 permanent full-time positions being eliminated are vacant. In November, Schmoke instituted a hiring freeze, warning of a potential $24.4 million budget deficit in two years. The city has hired no one since then, leaving about 360 positions open. Those positions, along with 240 others, would be eliminated.

Gallagher said he hopes that attrition, such as through retirements, will help the city cut the rest of the positions. The 600 positions represent about 3.7 percent of the 16,243 employee slots in the city.

The biggest cuts in the spending plan would come in the housing, public works and recreation and parks departments. Housing would lose 69 positions, including housing inspectors, while public works would face the largest cut, 92 slots. Recreation and parks would lose 71 slots, including custodial positions that the city hopes to contract out.

The budget proposal gained the immediate attention of department directors such as public works head George G. Balog, who worried about the impact on city services.

"If we need 300 people to pick up trash and we drop down to 250 people, we have to hire 50 people," said Balog, who sits on the estimates board. "We have to provide the service."

But Gallagher warned that city finances have reached a point where cuts in such services could be the next step. "Our tax base is not sufficient to provide enough funds to provide the constant level of service year after year," Gallagher said.

City residents pay $5.82 per $100 of assessed property value. Since 1993, the city's property tax revenues have remained at $800 million.

The city's financial problems and the call for cutting jobs worries city unions, which have been fighting efforts by the Schmoke administration to explore hiring private companies to handle city services. Sheila Jordan, president of the 5,000-member Baltimore City Union, said the administration should examine its spending before calling for job cuts.

Jordan pointed to an investigation of overtime fraud in the public works department. State prosecutors are looking into whether employees gained overtime in return for kickbacks to a supervisor. "Perhaps they need to look in those directions first," Jordan said. Over the past 12 years, Schmoke has helped Baltimore avoid budget deficits that hit cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Schmoke has eliminated 3,355 city jobs through attrition since taking office in 1987.

Despite the cuts, critics of the Schmoke administration, such as the Calvert Institute of Policy Research and the Baltimore Homeowners Coalition, have accused the city of carrying too many employees and failing to challenge city unions as Philadelphia, Washington and Indianapolis have done to win pay and benefit concessions.

A Calvert study last year estimated that Baltimore had 5,500 more city workers than six similar-sized cities in the nation. The extra workers cost the city an estimated $224 million a year, according to the study.

City administrators and union leaders criticized the report, saying that it failed to take into account functions that other cities don't handle, such as managing water and wastewater services for the region.

Yesterday, George Nilson of the Homeowner Coalition called Schmoke's plan to eliminate 600 city positions a move in the right direction. "That sounds pretty promising," Nilson said. "That sounds like an interesting development."

Schmoke did not attend the estimates board meeting because he was returning from Cuba.

Two departments where the city is about to see a significant drop in employees through retirement are the two services Schmoke has excluded from the hiring freeze: police and fire services. Under the proposed 2000 budget, the city would add 93 police officers and 53 firefighters.

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