Terror fight takes toll on stressed city

Defensive costs, including police OT, straining budget

Hiring freeze possible

Revenues suffering from the effects of recession, attacks

October 21, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris have drawn national publicity for their campaign to defend Baltimore against terrorism, but their intensive efforts are also taking their toll on a cash-poor city grappling with crime.

The city has spent millions on terrorism preparedness, some of that in police overtime, with city officials projecting that such spending will exceed $9 million this fiscal year.

Also, city revenues are suffering from economic conditions and the Sept. 11 attacks -- projections are $4 million lower than was budgeted for this year. Only months after the mayor pushed through an income tax increase to avoid hundreds of layoffs, sources say, budget officials are warning of belt-tightening ahead.

It is part of a nationwide economic downturn and post-Sept. 11 malaise that is forcing governments -- including the state of Maryland and some of its counties -- to consider spending cuts. But O'Malley, while conscious of the city's security expenses, remains an optimist. He asserts that as in tough times in the past, the city will show "grit" and rally.

"Revolutionary War, post-Revolutionary War, 1812, the Great Fire, World War II: I mean, when the country is going through some of its greatest challenges, or when we've been hit with a lot of adversity, for some reason, is when we step up," O'Malley said. "So I'm not ready to throw in the towel with the gloom and doom, that `Oh my goodness, we're going down the tubes.'"

At the same time, Norris says his department has been stretched thin by anti-terrorism efforts, and he believes criminals are taking advantage, with about one homicide a day in the past three weeks.

The distractions start at the top, with a commissioner and top commanders whose days seem to start and end with security meetings, and pervade the 3,000-member force, which has been guarding buildings and responding to anthrax and bomb scares.

Heading for `a deep hole'

All this occurs at a time when, at least before Sept. 11, city officials were hopeful for the big rebound that O'Malley said would be the payoff for his war on crime. The combined effects of the recession and the terrorist attacks have tempered that optimism in some corners of City Hall.

"I do get the sense, and it hasn't been said, that we're going to have a deep hole," said City Council President Sheila Dixon. "Last couple of days, I've been dreaming about it ... dreaming about the fact that we're going to have to cut back more services, we're going to have to lay off more people."

O'Malley said that the city is not in a "huge, deep, deep, deep" hole, and that he and his aides aren't talking about the layoffs Dixon fears. But a citywide hiring freeze, excluding security needs, is possible.

In addition, budget officials have told department heads that they will have scaled-back spending targets for next year because of the recession and the Sept. 11 attacks.

The city can't bank on much help from the state, which is instituting a hiring freeze. Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced last week that he is making $205 million in spending cuts because of the effects of the recession and the terrorist attacks.

"If the state ends up having to lay off people and curb their spending, it's going to drastically affect the city," Dixon said. "We're just going to be extremely tight."

Rebuilding efforts at risk

O'Malley concedes that he, like Dixon, is concerned about how the city's annual funding requests will fare in Annapolis, especially in the cases of programs that do not have a powerful constituency but are important to Baltimore's rebuilding efforts -- such as drug treatment and demolition of vacant rowhouses for redevelopment.

"What concerns me most is that our progress will be slowed because we won't be able to get the sort of gap financing that we've traditionally depended on Annapolis for," the mayor said.

He also does not expect the federal government to reimburse the city for millions of dollars in security costs, as he had hoped for in the first days after Sept. 11.

But O'Malley said he was hopeful the city could find ways to hold down expenses. He says he believes that the city might be able to take advantage of low interest rates to refinance debt.

He also wants to find a way, with the weight of either City Hall or Congress behind him, to force private companies to provide their own security instead of leaning on government. He said he was "alarmed" at how much the police have had to do to secure private property, including that of CSX Corp., the railroad company that owns property throughout the city and has a police force.

"Over the long term, we can't continue on this course," O'Malley said. "If we continue like this, we'd have a $10 million hole in the budget just from police overtime."

Before Sept. 11

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