Council approves O'Malley's budget

$1.9 billion plan directs more funds to police, prosecutors

June 09, 2000|By Eric Siegel and M. Dion Thompson | Eric Siegel and M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore City Council unanimously approved last night Mayor Martin O'Malley's first budget, a $1.9 billion spending plan that reflects the new city leader's focus on fighting crime by funneling more money to police and prosecutors.

The budget, for the fiscal year that begins July 1, contains an increase of $32.5 million, or 1.7 percent, over this year's. It maintains a property tax rate of $5.82 per $100 of assessed value.

"This budget enables us to move forward," O'Malley said. "We are going to make this the safest big city in America."

Under the budget approved last night, the Police Department will receive an additional $11.6 million in city funds. That will more than offset a decline of nearly $5 million in federal grants and will provide the department with an overall increase of about 3 percent.

The additional money will allow the city to pay the salaries of 19 police officers and 41 community service officers previously funded by federal dollars.

The city state's attorney's office will receive an additional $3.7 million, a rise of nearly 22 percent. Most of the money is to hire more prosecutors and support staff, and to upgrade technology to help expedite cases in the backlogged criminal court system.

Analysts initially had projected an overall budget shortfall of $20 million. But larger-than-expected revenue from property taxes allowed the city to increase spending without raising taxes.

Although the property tax and the 2.5 percent income tax will remain the same, the budget includes a 17 percent increase in water and sewer fees that translates to city residents paying on average $66 more a year. Some of the 1.6 million water users in the surrounding counties will see their yearly bills increase by $30 to $40.

The mayor avoided a possible fight this week about the budget when he and the council reached a compromise on his proposal to close seven city fire stations and put six more ambulances on the street. Plans now call for closing five stations, for a savings of $4 million, adding four ambulances, and eliminating 86 vacant positions in the department.

Last night, about a dozen placard-carrying protesters concerned about the closing of fire stations in their neighborhoods stood outside City Hall as council members arrived for the meeting.

In all, the 2001 fiscal year budget calls for a reduction of 282 positions over the current year, to a total of 15,871. Officials said the reduction would be accomplished without layoffs.

Public safety isn't the only priority in the budget. It also allocates $197.8 million for public education, $5 million more than required under state law.

And it gives the Department of Recreation and Parks an increase of nearly $1 million - the department's first increase in funds in more than five years. That amount includes a $500,000 mayoral initiative to improve children's programs.

Also last night, the Board of Estimates, meeting in a special budget session, adopted a council resolution to withhold $800,000 from several city agencies, pending hearings to prove that they have made improvements in such services as non-emergency police calls and housing inspections.

"Sure, it's only a drop in the bucket," Council President Sheila Dixon said of the amounts being withheld. "But it will show the agencies the council is very concerned about accountability."

The budget approved last night is the final one to be developed by Edward J. Gallagher, the city's budget director since 1983. Gallagher, who was applauded last night by council members and other city officials, has been named deputy director of finance.

Henry Raymond, who has held high-level budget positions with both the city and school systems, is acting budget chief.

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