City can save millions, business leaders say

Mayor enthusiastic at recommendations in 500-page report

July 26, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Cash-strapped Baltimore could save millions of dollars and vastly improve city services, according to a far-reaching study of government that the local business community delivered yesterday to an enthusiastic Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Some of the more than 250 recommendations - reducing trash collections, for example - might be too controversial.

But receiving the long-awaited, 500-page report, O'Malley called it "a gift to the people of this city."

Prepared by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable, it suggests major and minor changes to city government that if fully adopted, it says, could save the city $83 million to $135 million a year.

The report does not call for layoffs nor recommend any specific reduction in the size of the city's work force.

"Make no mistake. If you think these recommendations are only to reduce expenses, you're wrong. The real objectives are to improve both the quality and the scope of services provided to our citizens," said John Morton III, chairman of the GBC.

"It is very clear that `business as usual' when it comes to the delivery of municipal services is no longer in the best interest of Baltimore's citizens."

The project, which brought together more than 250 business leaders over the past five months, reviewed operations in the departments of Public Works, Housing and Community Development, Health, Recreation and Parks and the Fire Department. It also examined the city's need to improve its information technology services.

Some of the major recommendations include reducing trash pickups, privatizing the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's property management services, transferring the Housing Police to the city Police Department, closing the Neighborhood Service Centers, and merging the Baltimore Mental Health Systems with Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems.

There are pages and pages of other proposals. Some could save the city millions of dollars; other ideas suggest savings of a few thousand dollars.

O'Malley wholeheartedly endorsed the report yesterday and vowed to work with the business leaders and act on some their recommendations.

"We won't let you down. We're going to do our absolute best," he said at the news conference. "We're going to move on this."

O'Malley has courted the business community and sought its input since the earliest days of his administration. In December, he wrote the GBC about joining forces with the Presidents' Roundtable to study the management and efficiency of city government.

The GBC is a 600-member group of business and civic leaders; the Roundtable is a group of about two dozen African-American business leaders.

O'Malley was already well aware of the GBC's interest, having attended a meeting in October in which David L. Cohen, former chief of staff for Mayor Ed Rendell of Philadelphia, talked about how the business community helped rescue that city from the brink of financial ruin.

The Philadelphia study took more than two years to complete and brought forth recommendations that are saving the city $500 million a year, the GBC says.

Yesterday, O'Malley held up the report as one more example of how he is trying to rethink city government.

"The status quo has its fans, still has its fans. But things have to change," he said. "This is a reformist administration and we're going to change city government."

He has embraced and acted on an earlier recommendation from the study's authors to close some city fire stations and put more ambulances on the street. As with many of the proposals in the report, closing fire stations was not a new idea.

"That was kind of a no-brainer," said O'Malley. "That was something I think everybody in city government had acknowledged for years, but we hadn't moved on it."

O'Malley said he would be meeting with department heads and members of his Cabinet throughout the week to review the proposals. Deciding whether to act on the various proposals could take at least a month, he said.

But, he said, there will be action.

"Making government more efficient and effective is going to make us able to give our citizens the services they need," O'Malley said. "Taxpayers should get a good return on their investment.

Some of the suggestions, such as reducing trash pickups in selected neighborhoods to once a week, could run into fierce opposition.

Though the proposal could save the city $2.4 million a year, its enactment also would require changing the City Charter. Twice-weekly trash collection is the law in Baltimore.

George L. Winfield, director of the Department of Public Works, said he opposes a reduction "because we need to change the appearance of the city and we haven't done that right now."

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who has sometimes been critical of O'Malley, was much less diplomatic in rejecting the proposal.

"It will drive people out of the city. Two trash collections in a city like Baltimore is absolutely essential," he said. "It doesn't make any sense."

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