Mayor chooses layoffs, tax rise

Combination punch needed to close gap in budget, O'Malley says

`Heart-wrenching exercise'

Plan would cut 150 at Public Works

jobs would be contracted

April 17, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley has decided to lay off more than 150 employees from the Department of Public Works and contract out their work to help balance next year's budget, and he plans to recommend a tax increase to the City Council by the end of the month, he said in an interview yesterday.

Most of those to be laid off would be janitors, maintenance workers, guards and other employees in the Bureau of General Services, which is responsible for the upkeep of city property. O'Malley plans to privatize their services for a savings of possibly several million dollars, though he said he wants to ensure that contractors give city workers priority.

"None of this is easy," the mayor said yesterday after a briefing on the budget plan for the Department of Public Works. "It's a heart-wrenching exercise, more so when you know a lot of the people who are going to be displaced."

The prospects of wide-scale layoffs and a significant tax increase have been looming for months, but O'Malley made clear yesterday for the first time that he will have to do both to close a yawning budget gap of tens of millions of dollars. In large part because of the plan to raise taxes, though, the O'Malley administration's total number of layoffs citywide could end up being less than half the 500 or more anticipated in the mayor's preliminary budget issued last month.

O'Malley said he will move forward with at least one, if not a combination, of two tax options he has been considering: an increase in the income tax and an expansion of the city's energy tax, which could be imposed on residents, nonprofits and manufacturers. The budget to be delivered to the City Council next month may also include fee increases.

The mayor is also giving thought to a touchy proposal to reduce the city's trash pickups, having one day for trash and one for recycling. He listed a number of East Coast cities that have such a schedule, but he doesn't appear ready to recommend the "one-and-one" pickup for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

"The one-and-one trash collection is probably one we should explore, but we should do it deliberately and with a lot of public education," O'Malley said. He noted he would hesitate to reduce trash pickup days in some areas where illegal dumping is a problem.

Tonight, residents have a chance to speak out about the budget to O'Malley, City Council President Sheila Dixon and other top city officials at "Taxpayers Night," at 7 at the War Memorial Building near City Hall. A major topic of discussion may well be the layoffs, which union leaders and some City Council members say will hurt struggling lower-middle-class residents the worst.

"These jobs in general services, they're women, heads of household," said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 44. "They're the sole supporters of their children. They live from paycheck to paycheck. They're one paycheck away from public assistance."

O'Malley said yesterday that he has little choice but to lay off workers. "It really is strictly a matter of money," O'Malley said. "That's the only justification."

O'Malley has said deep spending cuts are necessary to pay for his strategy of investing in public safety to bring the city back. The Police Department is slated to receive a $15.6 million increase in its general fund for next year, more than two-thirds of which is to continue paying for a three-year, $30 million pay raise for police officers approved by O'Malley last year. The administration also has to spend millions more on firefighters after they fought successfully for a pay increase giving them a measure of parity with police.

Nearly every other department in city government is feeling the pain of budget cuts, through layoffs or hiring freezes. The mayor has decided he can't make some cuts, such as closing down 20 recreation centers and laying off more than 60 recreation and parks employees, but he is moving forward with the majority of cuts sketched in his preliminary budget.

Budget officials detailed yesterday how the Department of Public Works - the city's largest agency with about 5,500 employees - plans to make roughly $8 million to $9 million in spending cuts from a general fund that totaled $55 million this year, including:

Eliminate more than 200 positions from the Bureau of General Services, as many as three-quarters of which may be filled, meaning perhaps 150 or more layoffs. To replace guards and custodial workers, the city would issue contracts to private companies.

"The [city] unions would probably want to put in a bid for that on their own," O'Malley said.

Eliminate seven positions, or half the overall staffing, from the "Rat Rub-Out" program.

"I know that the [City] Council's not going to like seeing that, because a lot of us are getting complaints about rat eradication," O'Malley said.

Remove four positions from the department's recycling unit.

The recommendations also include eliminating curbside collection of "blue bag" recyclables of glass, plastics and metals - for an estimated savings of $1 million - but O'Malley has asked a task force of environmentalists to come up with a profitable strategy to save the politically popular service.

O'Malley will submit the recommended budget next month to the City Council, which can make cuts but not add spending, though O'Malley must win the council's approval for any tax increase. Passage of the budget is scheduled for June.

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