City has big plans for budget surplus

Neighborhoods, arts to share in $19 million

May 22, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN REPORTER

Faced with the prospect of divvying up a budget surplus for a third straight year, Baltimore officials unveiled yesterday a plan to spend nearly $19 million in extra money on neighborhood initiatives, arts programs and Mayor Sheila Dixon's anti-litter campaign.

Though the city's budget surplus is estimated to be smaller than last year's, it has swollen far beyond earlier projections -- allowing Dixon to spend $4 million on a Park Heights revitalization plan, $1 million to help residents rehab homes and $900,000 for the city's largest art museums.

"It's a tool the mayor can use to solve a lot of issues," City Council Vice President Robert W. Curran, acting as the council president yesterday, said of the budget surplus. "Hopefully, the numbers will even rise a little higher."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Tuesday and an accompanying chart incorrectly implied that $900,000 in Baltimore City surplus money will be spent solely on the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum. Part of that money will be spent on other arts programs.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Driven largely by higher-than-expected income tax revenue, this year's budget surplus -- which comes from the budget that will end June 30 -- will also help pay for a memorial to Clarence H. Du Burns, the city's first black mayor, and to fund part of a 10-year plan created in late 2005 to end homelessness.

Baltimore's recent surpluses come after years of struggling to balance the city's budget and were initially explained by a real estate boom that caused an explosion in recordation and transfer tax collection. Last year, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley announced a $61 million surplus, and members of the City Council immediately began a debate over whether taxes, including the property tax rate, should be cut.

Dixon's administration has taken a quieter approach, allowing the surplus proposals to work their way through the Board of Estimates, and now the City Council, without much discussion. Growth in city real estate taxes has declined since last year, and there has been no sustained debate about tax reductions in the City Council. However, the city is proposing a 2-cent reduction in the tax rate.

Several organizations in line to receive the city money this year said the infusion would be critical to their mission. Deborah Flateman, CEO of the Maryland Food Bank, said the $637,000 proposed for her organization would pay for a community kitchen and repacking area that will be used to collect and flash-freeze bulk food donations from hospitals and other institutional donors.

"We need to triple our distribution, at least. We're just being as aggressive and creative and flexible as we can be to try to access every piece of food that's available out there," Flateman said of the surplus appropriation.

Among the largest appropriations is $4 million for the Park Heights master plan, a $300 million redevelopment effort that officials hope will turn around the sprawling neighborhood. The plan, crafted under the O'Malley administration, is the latest in a long line of city plans to help the neighborhood.

"Are we hopeful this time? A little bit more, maybe. At least there's some money -- not lots -- but at least there's some money coming into the community," said Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Networking Community Council and a 30-year resident of the neighborhood. "In order to restore this community ... it's going to take a lot of money, a lot of effort."

The surplus reported by the city includes money left over in the budget after all other expenses are covered. It does not include $24.6 million in extra revenue that has already been spent on unexpected police and firefighter overtime costs in the past fiscal year. Members of the City Council perennially question why public safety overtime consistently comes in so far over budget every year.

"That's $19.8 million [in police overtime costs] that could have gone toward some rec program or some after-school programs," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a frequent critic on the issue and a candidate for City Council president this year. "I don't see what the return on the investment has been."

Since taking office in January, Dixon has reduced the amount of overtime being spent by the Police Department.

Included in the list of projects is $1 million for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks for a fountain to be located in the Inner Harbor's West Shore Park. Half of that cost will come from leftover income tax revenue and the other half will be paid for by state and private grants, according to Board of Estimates documents.

"The fountain will have five rows of jets and lights to create fountain `walls' that intersect and through which children can run," according to that document.

A spokeswoman with the parks department said the money would be sent to the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development agency, and referred questions there. A BDC spokeswoman did not return a phone call seeking comment.

City Surplus

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration is proposing spending money from this year's budget surplus, including nearly $19 million for neighborhood and arts programs. Here's a sample of some of the proposals:

$19.8 million for police, much of it for overtime. The Fire Department would receive an additional $4.8 million.

$5 million to the city's employee retirement system to cover the change in accounting standards that require governments to disclose the long-term liability of post-employment benefits.

$4 million for a plan to revitalize the Park Heights neighborhood.

$2 million to create an inclusionary housing trust fund to offset the costs associated with providing affordable housing.

$900,000 for the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum to continue their free admission program.

$637,000 for the Maryland Food Bank to create a program to train cooks and to repackage bulk food donations for wider distribution. [Sources: City Council agenda; Board of Estimates documents

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