Dixon would cut city jobs, services

Deepest reductions in at least a decade proposed

March 19, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Mayor Sheila Dixon proposed the deepest cuts in city services in at least a decade yesterday, saying the national recession will force her to lay off as many as 153 workers, close recreation centers and swimming pools and reduce library hours.

Dixon's budget blueprint does not include a tax increase, but water rates would rise by 9 percent for city residents as part of a previously agreed-to plan that could also hit those in suburban counties that rely on Baltimore for water.

Other proposed cost savings include a switch to once-weekly trash collection and an end to a renowned Police Athletic League program designed to foster relationships between youths and officers.

"This is not an easy process, and this is going to be a very difficult year," said Dixon, speaking at one of three news conferences held by the administration to address budget questions.

Dixon said she decided on many of the cuts for the spending plan that takes effect July 1 after "looking at our departments and looking at what works and what is not necessarily working."

More reductions could lie ahead, she warned. City Hall officials expect an $18 million reduction in aid from the state, which is contending with its own budget shortfall. Expected federal stimulus money to the city is unlikely to help stave off job cuts, she said, because those funds are targeted for construction projects.

Other jurisdictions are struggling with similar fiscal issues. Montgomery County faces a $587 million budget shortfall and is considering cutting hundreds of jobs and cutting bus service. Prince George's County must shore up $113 million in spending, and officials are proposing furloughs.

The Board of Estimates and the City Council must approve the mayor's plan. City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said her office is studying the proposal, adding that she is trying to avoid "a knee-jerk reaction" against layoffs in light of current conditions. "We are looking at exactly where they are and what the impact will be to families in the city," she said.

The budget plan assumes that the City Council will pass legislation proposed by the mayor that would shave millions from the ballooning costs of the city's fire and police pension program. The council would also have to approve a proposal that would reduce trash pickup to once a week, saving the city about $7 million.

Layoffs in the 15,000-member work force would hit most heavily in the Department of Public Works, which would lose 74 workers, with the Finance Department losing 13 workers. The proposal would abolish 374 vacant positions, maintain a hiring freeze that has been in effect since November 2007 and cut live 311 telephone service at night.

Urgent calls for water main breaks and transportation will be transferred to call centers in those agencies. Emergency 911 services will not be altered.

Dixon is proposing a philosophical shift away from the concept of Police Athletic League centers, created to forge ties between police and young adults.

The plan would convert 14 of the city's 18 PAL centers, now run by the Police Department, into traditional recreation centers staffed by civilians. Two will be run by the school system. Two others, Rosemont on North Rosedale Street and Bocek on East Madison, would close.

The mayor, who has supported PAL centers in the past, said she would shift most of them to Recreation and Parks even if the city didn't face a budget crunch. "Sometimes it takes a crisis to get people to step up to be innovative in their efforts," Dixon said.

The shift means that 24 officers assigned to PAL centers could return to patrol, which commanders hope will reduce overtime.

The city would also shutter West Baltimore's Easterwood Recreation Center, where, officials say, enrollment is dropping and $350,000 worth of building repairs are needed. Child care provided at Waverly and Northwood will be curtailed.

The city proposes transferring two other traditional recreation centers to the city school system. Both of those, Carter Woodson and Tench Tilghman, saw enrollment increase last year, but city officials said those centers already share facilities with the school system. That would leave the city running 57 recreation centers and PAL centers, down from 64.

The city would also close one of six community action centers, which are used for community meetings, workshops and as cooling centers during the summer.

One of the hardest-hit city agencies is the Fire Department, which would absorb a $3 million cut and plans to close one truck company and one engine company. No firehouses would close permanently, but houses would close on a rotating basis to reduce spending on overtime. "It was tough," said Fire Chief Jim Clack, who added he will seek some stimulus funding to offset the cuts. "I don't want to close any companies. I'd like to have more."

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