Residents, workers oppose mayor's budget cut choices

O'Malley hears fears of lost jobs, services

April 18, 2001|By Neal Thompson and Gady A. Epstein | Neal Thompson and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Don't close our libraries. Don't lay us off. Don't ignore our parks. And don't raise our taxes.

Those were the main messages from the more than 100 Baltimore residents and employees who faced off last night against Mayor Martin O'Malley and other top officials at the city's annual "Taxpayers Night."

Typically a quiet, sparsely attended affair, last night's forum at the War Memorial Building was occasionally loud and profane as the public got its first chance to voice opinions on the deep budget cuts O'Malley is proposing.

"If you look around this room, you see a lot of people who're scared," said Gwendolyn Christopher, a school custodian. "They're scared of losing their jobs. ... Find a way to save our jobs."

The city's labor unions made a strong showing last night, a day after the mayor's statements that he would lay off more than 150 Department of Public Works employees and seek to turn some municipal services, such as maintenance and security at city properties, over to contractors.

Wearing jackets and sweatshirts with union logos, a number of workers who face being displaced by a privatization plan asked O'Malley to spare their jobs.

Glenard S. Middleton Sr., head of Local 44 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said his office was swamped yesterday with calls from members fearing layoffs. And he said nearly a third of those in attendance last night were members of his union.

"I want them [the officials] to see the faces," said Middleton, who represents about 5,000, mostly blue-collar city workers.

In meetings with labor and business leaders in the past several months, and in public comments, O'Malley has hinted at a laundry list of small steps toward privatization of services, including tree trimming, towing and impounding of cars, some parks maintenance and management of a trash transfer station.

Some City Council members are prepared to lobby strongly against the planned layoffs and the unions are ratcheting up their rhetoric, concerned that more privatization may be in the offing.

"With the mayor moving on this privatization issue, it's got a lot of employees nervous," said Sheila Jordan, president of the City Union of Baltimore. "How much further is this going to go? Is this just a start? I've got a feeling it is, of something bigger."

Many of the dozens of people who took to the podium last night pleaded for sparing branch libraries and recreation centers that could be shuttered if the mayor's budget plan goes through. Dozens of people wore stickers that read "Save Libraries, Save Lives."

Some said they feared increases in rats and disease if the city cut back on public works jobs. Others said any plan to raise taxes would drive residents to the suburbs.

And at least four of last night's speakers had the same suggestion for O'Malley: Lay off a few deputy mayors who earn $100,000 or more.

"If you want to cut something, think about the triple-digit salaries of the deputy mayors," said Sharon Ceci, an organizer with the All People's Congress, a city community group.

Anthony Mitton, a city employee, elicited cheers and shouts of "Right on, brother" with his similar suggestion: "Let's eliminate five deputy mayors at a cost of $600,000."

O'Malley and other officials sat mostly stone-faced through the forum. O'Malley, with sleeves rolled up, took notes and listened intently to the comments, some of them angry and aimed directly at him.

"Keep in mind that Election Day will come again and we will remember this," said Leonard Patterson of the Forest Park Neighborhood Association.

The mayor has made clear he wants city workers to have first shot at jobs with private contractors and has talked about the prospect of unions competing for contracts. But he has also said privatization is needed to save the city millions of dollars in a year when he is faced with raising taxes to balance the budget.

Union leaders say that even if their laid-off workers get a first chance at jobs with the private contractors, their long-term prospects are uncertain at best. They're concerned that once one department is privatized, others will follow.

"They're scared to death," Middleton said.

Most of the jobs targeted - on custodial staffs - belong to some of the lowest-paid municipal employees.

The Department of Public Works has about 170 full and part-time custodial workers, according to payroll records obtained this year, and all of them earn less than $25,000 a year.

"We're tired of budgets being balanced on the backs of the lowest-paid workers," said Jordan, of the City Union of Baltimore.

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