Mayor orders budget cutbacks

O'Malley seeks 2.5% cuts by most city agencies

`Going to be a big challenge'

January 23, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley has asked most city agencies to cut their expenses by 2.5 percent to help prevent a budget shortfall that could range between $4 million and $10 million by June 30.

The size of the budget gap this fiscal year will depend upon how tax revenues hold up in the wilting economy and whether the city will be hit by cuts in state and federal funding, city officials said.

Most city agencies are still calculating what the cutbacks will mean. The police and fire departments as well as the state's attorney's office are exempt from the cuts.

"I can't remember a year as long as I've been in government where we weren't moving money around and trying to make up for gaps and revenue shortfalls," said O'Malley. "And a lot depends on whether we will have to spend a lot more on homeland defense if the commander in chief [President Bush] decides to go war with Iraq."

Nonetheless, the midyear belt-tightening efforts are an early warning of what is expected to be an agonizing budget process this spring for fiscal 2004, with the possibility of more layoffs, according to officials and lawmakers.

"It's going to be a big challenge, a huge challenge for us," said Peggy Watson, the city's director of finance. "But the city's condition has been a challenge all along."

Watson said that while more layoffs are a possibility, it's too early to know and "our focus is always to avoid that."

This month, as part of the 2.5 percent cut, the city told the Department of Recreation and Parks -- which has 333 employees and an annual budget of $25 million -- to reduce its spending by $467,000 through June 30, said acting Parks Director Kimberley Amprey.

"We are looking for fat wherever possible, although we are already very lean," said Amprey.

On top of this cut, the city began planning last spring to close parks department child care centers that have seen declining enrollment. On Dec. 20, the department closed the Liberty child care center at 3901 Maine Ave. and the Morrell Park center at 2601 Tolley St., and is planning to close the Fred B. Leidig center by Jan. 31. The centers served 26 children ages 5 to 13.

The city has offered these children space in its three remaining centers, or directed parents to private day care options. Six day care jobs are being eliminated as part of the closures, but one of these employees is being transferred to another parks job. The city is trying to help the other five find work outside city government, officials said.

The closure of the child care centers touched a nerve with some City Council members, who called on O'Malley to rein in spending at the Police Department.

Some council members claim the city's law enforcement spending is forcing cuts in programs that help children.

In an effort to drive down the city's stubbornly high homicide rate, the 3,300-member police force is expected to exceed its $287 million budget by $10 million to $14 million for the year that ends June 30.

"I do not want to see any more program cuts involving children," said City Council President Sheila Dixon.

"And I think we need to balance what we give to the police to what we give to the schools and programs that benefit children, because right now these programs are being strangled."

Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, chairman of the City Council's parks subcommittee, said: "The parks department is cut every damn year, and it's just not right."

O'Malley, who promised last summer to make significant improvements in the city's long-neglected park system, said that the city has increased its funding for recreation and school programs over the past three years.

"That old saw about the city not putting money into kids programs doesn't hold up," said O'Malley.

"We know that you've got to increase school funding, you've got to fund drug treatment, and you've got to create recreational activities -- and we are doing all three."

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