A scalpel instead of an ax

Our view : City has managed to tighten its belt without causing too much harm - for now

October 22, 2008

The data entry operator didn't get hired. An accountant's job remains unfilled. The employee assistance counselor, trash collector and maintenance worker, these vacant municipal jobs and hundreds more are the primary reason the city of Baltimore has managed to avoid layoffs in this round of budget cuts. The hiring freeze imposed last November and extended through this year's budget captured $18.9 million in savings for City Hall. It reflects the city's cautious approach to budgeting and a recognition that savings over time would spare Mayor Sheila Dixon from having to cut basic services and increase the ranks of the unemployed.

Baltimore's government has been getting smaller over the years as the city's population has declined. And yet as the city's real estate market flourished, an increase in taxes and fees associated with buying and selling houses helped to keep the treasury flush. That is no longer the case, and the city is facing a $36.5 million deficit, largely the result of a $15 million reduction in the real estate-related taxes.

Mayor Dixon has been a realist on the city's budget concerns. Despite her commitment to improving public safety, she has chosen to include in this round of budget cuts the police and fire departments, agencies that have been held harmless in previous years. The police overtime budget is taking a hit, but the department routinely overspends that account by tens of millions of dollars, and some discipline is in order.

What should help Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III continue this year's substantial gains in reducing murders is the fact that the department has a fuller complement of officers on the street now than in years past after filling many patrol vacancies. More officers also have been moved from jobs at headquarters to neighborhood patrols.

With the economy in turmoil and the state expecting another round of cuts in December, local governments are expected to face more financial pain. When Mayor Dixon suggests that even the city's twice-weekly trash pickups aren't sacrosanct, she's preparing for the worst.

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