Budget woes

Our view: A troubled economy leaves Baltimore scrambling to offset a budget deficit

November 17, 2008

The last time Baltimore officials outlined a dire budget deficit, the city raised a series of local fees, finished off the year with a surplus and then shaved two cents off the property tax rate. But that was 2005 and this is now, and the chances of a turnaround in these depressing times are slim to none. The scenario outlined last week by Mayor Sheila Dixon projects a $65 million deficit for the budget year that begins in July, lost revenue that could result in layoffs and cuts in essential city services.

City residents may think the Dixon administration is getting ahead of itself. But the economic forecast nationally and locally for the next year is grim, grim, grim. The mayor and her finance chiefs are trying to dull the pain by ordering city agencies - including the budget-busting police and fire departments - to come up with cuts averaging 12 percent across the board. The hope is those reductions will solve the city's budget woes and help forestall layoffs next July. But a lot will depend on what else the city may lose from the state, which is facing as steep a deficit.

Mayor Dixon has worked hard to keep the city clean, safe and green since she took office. The number of murders has declined steadily and the city has improved its recycling efficiency. But the police won't be able to spend the millions on overtime that they routinely do, and citizens may have to get used to once-a-week trash pickups. As for layoffs, it's anyone's guess right now.

As the housing market has tanked across the country, sales in Baltimore have declined. The city's healthy budgets of years past were fed by robust home sales and increased prices. They allowed Ms. Dixon and her predecessor to give police what they needed to maintain and improve public safety and provide for after-school programs and other amenities. They were investments in the city's future.

Now, as the city tries to manage its $2.1 billion budget, austerity must be the mantra.

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