City cuts fire, police OT and extends hiring freeze

Actions should balance budget in face of $36.5 million shortfall

Sun Exclusive

October 21, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Baltimore is slashing police and fire overtime and extending a hiring freeze to grapple with a $36.5 million shortfall brought on by declining revenues and a projected spike in public safety costs, city officials told The Baltimore Sun yesterday.

The initial round of cuts should be enough to keep Baltimore's budget balanced - provided the economy doesn't get any worse, city officials said. But with global financial markets in disarray and the state considering reductions in aid to local governments to solve its own budget problems, more reductions could be on the way.

"My hope is that this does not take away from the momentum we are building," Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday. "We hope that people will ride through this. That is what I'm hoping."

The city's action comes days after Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration trimmed $300 million from the state budget and amid spending cuts in several Maryland counties. Prince George's County, for example, has ordered furloughs for employees, a step that Baltimore has yet to take.

The city's problems stem from a simultaneous $15 million drop in recordation and transfer taxes as a result of the weak housing market and from a projected $21 million increase in police and fire overtime. The cuts will take effect Nov. 1 and amount to 2 percent of the city's $2.1 billion budget.

The current round of cuts is designed to avoid any direct impact on city services. However, Dixon said yesterday that she's considering cutting trash collection to once a week and reducing recycling days. She also said that layoffs to the city's 15,000-person work force are still on the table but that she hopes to avoid them.

"It is going to be a matter of employees stepping up," she said. "It is a matter of saying, 'I'm doing more to get the job done. The goal is to ride through this recession and not lose my job.' "

Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty said that by acting early - the city is just four months into this budget year - the mayor hopes to stave off deeper cuts.

"The message we're sending to everyone across the city is this is the first round. Be as vigilant as you can. Cut as much excess as you can," he said, noting that the city doesn't yet have complete spending figures from the first three months of the budget year. "We'd be foolish not to let everyone know that we would anticipate additional cuts."

Most of the savings - $18.9 million - come from keeping in place a ban on hiring employees at nonemergency agencies. The freeze has been in place since November 2007, leaving the city with 425 vacant positions in the affected agencies. The city will also save $6.1 million by reclaiming funds that have been appropriated to agencies for purchases that have not yet been made.

The city will also delay $2.2 million in pay increases for middle managers to make their compensation competitive with their colleagues in the surrounding counties.

"There are going to be a lot of disappointed people," Thomaskutty said. "But tough times require tough decisions."

An additional $10.8 million comes from disbanding some police units, moving some Fire Department employees out of headquarters and into the field, putting off some fire equipment purchases and delaying training.

Glen Middleton, the chief of the city's biggest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the cuts were unfortunate. But he applauded the mayor's decision to spread the pain of the cuts throughout city government.

"In the previous administration, public safety was always exempted," he said. "She's the first mayor I've seen in some time who's spread the pain to every department when it comes to tightening the belt."

Capt. Stephan G. Fugate of the fire officers union praised Fire Chief Jim Clack for not taking "the shotgun approach" but instead combing carefully through that agency's budget to locate cuts that would have "a negligible" effect on the fire officers.

But Bob Cherry, the president-elect of the police union, said he worried that cuts to his department could threaten the gains made so far in reducing crime. Homicides are down about 30 percent this year, and shootings are down 15 percent. Police overtime projections are about $5 million less than last year's.

"I would hope public safety and public education would be two areas that are the last to cut," he said.

The city isn't banning police overtime but to prevent this cost from ballooning this year, police commanders will move a number of officers into vacant patrol jobs. Those positions have been staffed by officers working extra shifts. The housing unit - now 32 officers assigned to the city's low-income residents - will go to the Southern and Southeastern police districts. Those two districts have the highest concentration of public housing.

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