A budget for the times

Our view: City budget proposal has no frills, just the basics and a few flourishes

March 19, 2009

Mayor Sheila Dixon's $2.2 billion budget for next year is no nip-and-tuck affair. It's austere across the board, but retains basic services without raising Baltimore's property tax rate, the highest in the state. The mayor was able to keep the focus on public safety, which is essential if Baltimore wants to continue last year's decrease in city murders. The budget also holds the line on after-school programs and summer jobs for city youths, another priority of Ms. Dixon, and maintains the city's financial commitment to schools as they continue needed reforms.

In this economy, there was no chance for property tax relief, not with housing sales stalled. Many city homes have held their value, but the credit crunch and mortgage crisis are having an impact across most city neighborhoods.

The city's water rate is going to increase by 9 percent, and if there are other possible fee hikes, city officials aren't yet saying. As for layoffs, about 153 city workers will likely lose their jobs. That figure would have been greater had the city not adhered to the hiring freeze begun in 2007. To get an idea of how much worse, the city's budget chief, Andrew W. Kleine, estimated unfilled positions to be about 600.

While the budget proposal calls for reduced library hours and some pool closings, Ms. Dixon has managed to increase recreation programming for kids through a long-overdue review of rec center operations. The city is eliminating some underused centers and staffing 14 Police Athletic League centers with rec-and-parks professionals instead of police officers, who will be returned to patrol, another wise move.

Other cost-cutting measures involved revisions to a popular retirement incentive for police officers and firefighters, a compromise developed with the help of the unions. The city's long-standing practice of twice-a-week trash pickup is being replaced by a proposed trash-recycling program that will offer trash pickup once a week with recyclables collected weekly instead of every other week.

Closer scrutiny by the City Council may still uncover some problems, but the Dixon administration's effort to present a reality-based budget proposal appears to have held the line on essential public services in a time of economic need.

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