Both Mayor Sheila Dixon and Gov. Martin O'Malley made a stir last week for acknowledging the inevitable: Despite their efforts to avoid it, the depth of the budget crisis facing the city and the state will force cuts to the most sacred of public priorities: firefighters, police and teachers. Ms. Dixon is in the midst of negotiations with the police and fire unions to trim their budgets for the current fiscal year by $8 million, part of her effort to make $60 million in cuts citywide. And Mr. O'Malley told superintendents at a meeting this week to start scouring their budgets for savings, noting that "virtually every other aspect of state government has been cut."
What these two Democrats are crashing up against are the grim realities of math. Public safety takes up more than 20 percent of Baltimore's budget, and education, at $5.3 billion a year, is more than 40 percent of Maryland's general fund. So far both have managed budget reductions without a major impact on the triumvirate of police, fire and schools, but we are rapidly approaching - and may already have passed - the point at which protecting them is causing irreparable damage to other top public priorities, such as health, the environment, parks, trash collection and more.
The question is how to make those cuts without endangering the public in Baltimore or hurting the progress Maryland students have made in recent years.
The police and fire contracts prohibit the city from forcing them to take furloughs, as other city government employees have, so the Dixon administration has been working with the unions to come to an agreement - though her move last week at the Board of Estimates to authorize pay cuts, should talks break down, didn't leave the unions with much room for negotiation. The firefighters union has tentatively agreed to a proposal that looks promising in terms of keeping the stations manned - firefighters would take furloughs on their vacation days. Talks with the police union are continuing.
If and when furlough deals are finalized, they deserve some scrutiny. Mayor Dixon has the power to put them into effect, but City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who has already expressed skepticism at how the mayor has handled the situation, should seek an opportunity to publicly question police and fire commanders on what steps they're taking to mitigate any possible consequences for public safety.
On the state level, Mr. O'Malley's suggestions to the superintendents on how to save money - uniform designs for new schools we probably can't afford to build anyway, bulk purchases, installing solar panels and buying furniture made by Maryland prison inmates - would be comical if the situation wasn't so serious. He has to make nearly $300 million more in cuts in the current fiscal year, and the budget he submits in January will need to reconcile a shortfall of as much as $2 billion. Trying to get a better rate on light bulbs isn't going to cut it.
Mr. O'Malley reduced the automatic inflation adjustment built into Maryland's Thornton education spending plan two years ago. That slowed but did not eliminate growth in aid to K-12 education. The state's acceptance of federal stimulus funds puts limits on what cuts can be made to classroom funding, but schools simply take up too much of the budget to be held harmless. In addition to holding the line on more increases in spending - which should be possible, since inflation is low and enrollment is expected to decline slightly - Mr. O'Malley should start shifting the burden for teacher pensions to the counties and Baltimore City, where it has belonged all along.
Firefighters and police officers will certainly grumble that they should be treated differently from other employees because of the dangers of their jobs. They are being treated differently. They are being asked to sacrifice less than other employees, and they already enjoy benefits - including a generous pension - that others do not. Superintendents won't be happy either. But they should look at the depth of cuts to, for example, the health department, which also serves a vital role and has not been afforded the same kind of protection that schools have. Cutting police, fire and schools is not something to be done lightly, but the magnitude of the crisis we face leaves little choice.
Is Mayor Dixon crazy, wanting to cut police officers' pay? Why not just tell them all to stay home and put out in the media that it's open season for crime in Baltimore City? It almost is anyway!
Police officers are underpaid as it is, and to ask them to take a pay cut when they put their lives on the line every day would be sinful. Why not ask City Council to take cuts?