New Plan Would Save City Millions

Government Would Close For 5 Days

Police, Fire Unions Reject Proposed Furloughs

September 20, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Baltimore city government would be closed for five days between October and June as most workers participate in a new furlough plan that the city's spending board will be asked to approve this week to help plug a $60.2 million gap in the city's $2.3 billion budget.

Firefighters and police also would have to accept furloughs or equivalent reductions to make the cost-saving program work, city officials said, but union leaders are resisting any plan that takes their members off the streets, arguing that further cuts to their agencies would endanger the public.

Also on the chopping block are planned upgrades to fire and police stations, maintenance of the U.S.S. Constellation and renovations to the City Council chamber, recreation centers and waste water facilities. Under the proposal, officials would continue a city hiring freeze that began in November 2007 and dip into surplus funds carried over from last year.

"This is a huge undertaking," City Finance Director Edward J. Gallagher said Friday as he laid out details of a plan that would cut $60.2 million if police and fire personnel take furloughs. He will present the proposal to the city's Board of Estimates on Wednesday for approval.

Gallagher's plan includes $12.9 million in cuts from plans submitted earlier this year by agency heads, but Dixon administration officials provided no details on what those might include. The plan includes no new taxes or fees, officials said.

The measures are needed because of a $35 million cut in state funds to the city and a $25 million decrease in expected Baltimore tax revenues.

The cuts come just 2 1/2 months into the new budget year and likely will be followed by more as forecasters predict economic gloom. For example, the proposal does not reflect the likely local impact of $300 million in new cuts state officials last week said they must make from the current budget.

"The potential of another round of state cuts could exacerbate this," Gallagher said.

The plan does not call for tapping the city's roughly $95 million rainy day fund, but Gallagher would not rule out dipping into that money if the budget situation worsens - a stance that the finance director has not previously taken.

A key to the proposal is the $13.5 million in savings that could be realized by a furlough plan, officials said. "We are avoiding hundreds of layoffs by having people share the pain," said Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty, though up to 50 city workers still would get pink slips.

Essential services such as trash collection and police and fire protection would continue on days that the rest of city government is closed. Those essential workers would have to stagger days off.

The five-day furlough would apply to all 10,845 city workers who make $50,000 or less. The 5,921 employees who make $50,000 to $100,000 would be furloughed eight days, and the 147 who earn more than $100,000 (including Mayor Sheila Dixon) would take 10 furlough days. Police and fire command staff, who are not represented by unions, are included.

The administration also wants City Council members to take unpaid days, though it cannot force them to do so. City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has scheduled a closed session Monday to discuss furloughs. She declined through a spokesman to comment for this article.

At least one of the city's unions has reluctantly agreed to the plan.

"We're just between a rock and a hard place," said Brenda J. Clayburn, head of the City Union of Baltimore, which represents 2,200 clerical workers. "If we say 'no,' people get laid off."

Police and fire unions, however, have resisted the furlough proposal, which could leave an $8 million gap in the city's cost-savings strategy. The current administration plan assumes those savings will somehow come from fire and police, but Gallagher plans to return to the Board of Estimates in October to detail how the savings will be realized. City Solicitor George Nilson has said he believes the public safety unions can be forced to take furloughs, though Dixon officials favor securing voluntary concessions.

Meanwhile the administration has gone on offense, lobbying City Council members who usually are sympathetic to police and fire unions.

"I will be very disappointed if the police and fire [departments] do not participate," said Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, who chairs the council's budget and public safety committees. "I will be very disappointed."

"I'm not going to sugarcoat this," said Council Vice President Edward L. Reisinger. "We are in a crisis now. I think the fire and the police departments, they have to share the pain."

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