Using surplus to pay for overruns debated

City is setting aside $20 million to cover agencies' overspending

June 02, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Since Mayor Martin O'Malley announced in April that the city would end the current fiscal year with a $37.5 million surplus, he has garnered Baltimore City Council support for spending the extra cash on such items as youth programs and surveillance cameras.

But several council members have become less enthusiastic about the mayor's plan for the rest of the surplus - $20 million that must be used to pay for overspending by city agencies.

Technically, the two numbers - and an additional $1.5 million in surplus funds going unspent - make up the city's total budget surplus of $59 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The council must approve how to spend the money by then.

Publicly, the O'Malley administration has focused on the $37.5 million portion of the surplus, promoting the youth programs and one-time initiatives such as beautifying the city's Amtrak corridor and demolishing vacant housing.

But several council members are questioning the recurring annual budget overruns by city agencies, especially the police and fire departments, that have resulted in the $20 million needed to cover overspending.

"They need to come in line with their spending," Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said. "If crime is down, then why are we spending so much money on overtime?"

The Baltimore Police Department's overtime budget for fiscal year 2005 is $7.4 million. By June 30, the department is projected to have spent $18.2 million for overtime, said city budget chief Raymond S. Wacks.

The department needs the council to approve nearly $9 million in supplemental funds this month to close the books. Nearly half of that will go for overtime. The remaining overtime costs were made up in salary savings from unfilled police positions, Wacks said.

The Baltimore City Fire Department's overtime budget is $4.9 million. By June 30, the agency will have spent $10.5 million, Wacks said. The department is asking the council to give it $5.5 million in supplemental appropriations to cover the overruns.

The rest of the $20 million - about $5.5 million - is being requested to cover overruns in other agencies, including the departments of public works, transportation and health.

Wacks said overtime is necessary to guarantee that there are enough police officers and firefighters on the streets.

"Overtime isn't necessarily bad," Wacks said. "When you look at the cost of training additional officers and paying for their health benefits, it's better to pay overtime than it is to pay those extra costs."

Edward Ambrose, acting deputy commissioner for the Police Department's administrative bureau, told the council's budget committee last week that "overtime is essential to our operations."

Edward Gallagher, the city's acting finance director, said the Police Department uses overtime for units deployed to buttress patrols in high-crime areas. He also said the Fire Department should see significant reductions in overtime over the next year as three new academy classes join the ranks.

Still, Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. complained that administrative personnel at the Fire Department appear to be making more in overtime than some employees fighting fires.

"When you have people working behind desks making a lot of overtime, that raises questions," Harris said. "We're not being a penny wise and a dollar smart on how we're spending money."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke questioned many of the city's requests for supplemental budget items, but she was supportive of police overtime.

"We need those overtime hours," she said. "It's the fastest way to increase [police] personnel on the streets."

She did, however, worry that such a use of overtime in the police and fire departments could lead to overworked employees.

"You can only overtime a person so much - then you lose the effectiveness and you're burning them out," Clarke said. "It's been chronic with the Fire Department because they have suffered a loss of personnel."

Council members have praised O'Malley for choosing youth programs as the chief beneficiary of the city's surplus money. But council members Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Clarke and Harris have said O'Malley needs to seriously consider giving Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy the additional $1.2 million she is seeking.

Mitchell said that if the city has the money for other items not related to public safety, it can fund Jessamy's request.

In addition to police overtime, the council must decide on other items needed to cover cost overruns, including: $3.3 million for legal settlements and various studies; $600,000 for War Memorial Plaza renovations; and $200,000 for upgrades to council meeting rooms.

Each year, O'Malley's administration has come to the council to get approvals for supplemental spending above its budget. Last year the administration needed $21 million. In fiscal year 2003, the amount was $25 million. Some council members suggest the administration should try to improve its efforts at advance budgeting.

"It's the same old song and dance," Harris said.

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