Budget has clear sailing

City Council makes minor changes

June 11, 2008|By John Fritze and Lynn Anderson | John Fritze and Lynn Anderson,Sun reporters

Students conducted a hunger strike and politicians promised to seek ways to cut taxes, but after weeks of debate and posturing, the Baltimore City Council advanced a budget last night that is nearly identical to the one Mayor Sheila Dixon proposed in March.

County councils across the state have slashed or redirected millions from budgets they were handed this year - to offset the weakening economy, or simply to shift priorities. But Baltimore's legislative branch tinkered with just a tiny fraction of Dixon's $2.94 billion budget.

And in the end, the two most controversial issues facing City Hall this year - funding for a youth mentoring program and a 2-cent reduction in the property tax rate - were never resolved.

"We tried very hard to find money in the budget for a 2-cent cut while at the same time being sensitive to the service needs throughout the city," said City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake.

A council budget committee approved the spending plan yesterday, which now will go to the full council.

Political and budgeting experts said that the mayor holds all the power in the yearly budget battle - including the responsibility of creating the budget's first draft, access to research staff, and the threat of filling potholes just a little bit more slowly in districts whose council members put up a fight.

"At the end of the day, if you don't have the mayor's support for whatever cuts you're going to make then it makes no sense to go forward," said City Councilman James B. Kraft, who proposed last night a 12-cent cut to the property tax that was soundly rejected.

Kraft's proposal did not detail how he would pay for the cut.

But while local executives in Maryland generally have significant authority to set their budgets, other legislative bodies jealously guard their roles as fiscal watchdogs. In Prince George's County, the council stripped $20 million from County Executive Jack B. Johnson's public safety budget this year and directed that money to a contingency fund that will be used for property tax relief.

In Harford County, the council cut $18 million from the capital budget and $1 million from the operating budget.

But in Baltimore, the council made no cuts. Members negotiated with Dixon to redirect less than one tenth of 1 percent of the budget.

"That would never happen in Montgomery County," council spokesman Neil Greenberger said of the budget process in the state's largest county. The council there cut $5.6 million. "You have a lot of people with strong interests."

Asked for the two or three largest changes the council made to Dixon's budget, Rawlings-Blake pointed to a $2 million transfer of bond money that was expected to be spent on the development of a parking garage under Rash Field in the Inner Harbor. It will instead be used for recreation centers.

The council also found $500,000 for Healthy Neighborhoods, a program that works to strengthen undervalued areas of Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake said. The source of that money was unclear yesterday. Dixon also found $2 million for additional youth program funding, something that several council members had advocated for.

Council officials also vowed to create a committee to study - and eventually introduce legislation for - long-term property tax relief.

But Dixon's budget this year - which is 10.4 percent larger than last year's budget - appears to have survived a series of controversies, from property taxes to youth funding, almost entirely unscathed.

In May, Rawlings-Blake vowed to work with Dixon to restore a 2-cent property tax cut that the mayor pulled out of the budget earlier this year. "We can protect the commitment that was made," she said at the time. "We owe it to our constituents" - but she never raised the issue again publicly.

Meanwhile, the council struggled, and ultimately failed, to find additional money for youth programs, particularly a group called Peer to Peer, whose members camped out at City Hall and conducted a hunger strike in a campaign to collect $3 million from the city.

In a surprise move last week, Rawlings-Blake abruptly canceled a series of votes on the budget, arguing that she needed "more time ... to carefully review important priorities as part of the budget process." This week, the hearings were rescheduled, and the budget is set for a vote by the full council next week.

Twelve council members voted to approve the budget last night. Two members, Mary Pat Clarke and Kraft, abstained. One member, City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, was absent.

Bernard C. "Jack" Young, chairman of the budget committee, said he is satisfied that the council adopted a balanced budget with "no cuts." Asked if it was fair to say that nothing substantive had changed in the fiscal year 2009 budget proposal since the mayor introduced it, Young said, "Yes, that is a fair statement."

Council members and political observers pointed to the mayor's power in Baltimore as the reason why the council has often been perceived as a rubber stamp. Even if the council gathered the political will to cut the budget, or change it, the mayor would have the power to direct that money however she chose.

"The executive rules the roost," said Donald F. Norris, professor and chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "And it's not in the interest of the legislators to cut budgets, except symbolically. You don't get re-elected by cutting people's budgets."



Sun reporters Laura Barnhardt, Larry Carson, Nicole Fuller and Mary Gail Hare contributed this article.

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