Mayor signs final budget of tenure

Last-minute tweaking by Schmoke, council saves 74 city jobs

Property tax won't change

$1.8 billion plan allows funds to fight rats, ignores growing deficit

June 11, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke signed the final budget of his 12-year tenure yesterday, restoring 74 planned layoffs, providing the largest school funding in city history and taking one last, $100,000 stab at the city's chief complaint: rats.

The mayor's $1.8 billion spending plan for fiscal 2000 might best be described as the Houdini budget. Despite a dire fiscal outlook in which Schmoke called for the elimination of 575 city positions, Baltimore's 46th mayor worked a little last-minute budget magic with City Council leaders to find an extra $2.1 million.

In the end, the city was able to cut about 400 positions through retirements and vacancies.

The compromise maintains the city property tax rate at $5.82 per $100 of assessed value, allowing Schmoke to step down in December without ever having had to increase city property taxes, which stood at $6 when he arrived in 1987.

"You have to be happy any time you don't raise property taxes," Council Budget and Appropriations Chairman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. said of next year's budget after commending Schmoke. "And the city will be getting the same services and in some cases better services."

Yet by creatively making it through another tough budget year by shuffling funds, the mayor and council failed to address the city's projected $153 million budget deficit over the next four years. Because of the exodus of 1,000 city residents each month, city budget leaders say the cost of providing services has outpaced the money generated from city property taxes.

In addition to helping city bank accounts break even next year, the sleight-of-hand budgeting should keep the Wall Street analysts who watch the city's fiscal situation from downgrading Baltimore's A bond rating, a critical mark needed to borrow money.

"I told them," Schmoke said of council members after signing the budget and stepping off the dais, "there is still an awful lot of work to be done."

Glen Middleton agrees. The president of one of the city's largest worker unions welcomed the reinstatement of 74 recreation department employees, who had received layoff notices Saturday. But he confronted Schmoke after the meeting about nine employees of the finance and health departments who were not spared.

One of the Health Department workers received a commendation for exceptional service last week only to receive a layoff notice two days later in the mail, said Middleton, head of the city's American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 44.

"They are abolishing the lower-paying jobs and keeping the layers of supervisors," Middleton said. "We need to stop planning from year to year, we need to plan for the future."

After signing the budget, Schmoke pledged to look at the remaining layoffs to determine whether the workers could be saved.

Budget highlights included:

Restoring $1.8 million of $2.9 million projected for cuts to city recreation. City residents reacted to the planned cuts in force, filling council chambers last week and shouting at city leaders. During the past three years, the city has cut $15 million to recreation. "This will mean so much to us," Georgine Edgerton, a recreation volunteer, said of the money.

Raising the city contribution to schools to $200 million, an increase of $2.8 million over current funding.

Adding $1.6 million to the city state's attorney's office, including $350,000 to help reduce a backlog in city courts. Prosecutors will assist police in filing charges against suspects, hoping to weed weaker cases out of the clogged system.

Injecting $100,000 into the city's Rat Rubout program. City operators handling residents' calls say rats are the chief complaint.

Setting aside $100,000 to brace for the possible retirement of up to 250 city police officers. A three-year plan enticing veteran officers to remain on the force expires at the end of this month.

The compromise also included Schmoke's reassurance that the HARBEL Community Organization will remain at its building in the 5800 block of Harford Road.

The final Schmoke budget came in a week that started in stalemate and council threats to tie up city spending. D'Adamo joined Council Finance and Taxation Committee Chairman Martin O'Malley in pledging to disrupt police and housing spending that Schmoke feared could affect the bond rating.

The city found $850,000 by selling a downtown building, $500,000 from taxing out-of-town natural gas suppliers and $200,000 through an audit by Comptroller Joan M. Pratt showing back payments due the city from an auctioneer.

"It was a matter of being creative and setting priorities," City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III said of the negotiations.

Many of the children from the Cahill Recreation Center in Walbrook Junction who attended a taxpayer's hearing last week to complain about the recreation cuts stood in City Council chambers yesterday singing cheers to its 19 members.

"It was nice to put a smile back on their face," said West Baltimore Councilwoman Agnes B. Welch.

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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