Mayor's budget plans call for deep cuts

Rec centers, 3 fire companies would shut

fees weighed as alternative

March 18, 2010|By Julie Scharper | julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Three fire companies would be permanently closed, several recreation centers shuttered and the Police Department's helicopter grounded under Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's proposals to close the city's $121 million budget gap.

Although the mayor does not plan to formally unveil her preliminary spending plan until next week, she has briefed City Council members about the proposed trims as well as a package of fees that could generate as much as $57 million in revenue - and ease some of the deep service cuts.

Rawlings-Blake's plan also would eliminate bulk trash pickup, so residents would need to make their own arrangements to haul large items to the dump. The small trucks that vacuum trash from commercial streets would also halt operation.

While Rawlings-Blake has frequently warned the city to brace for agonizing cuts, the severity of her proposal sent shock waves through city agencies and among council members.

Losing the police helicopter, known as Foxtrot and used to search for suspects, guide officers and disperse crowds, could endanger officers, said Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo Jr. "They can't afford to lose it," he said. "It's the police officers whose lives depend on Foxtrot."

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, who called the loss of the helicopter "devastating," said the unit costs the city about $4 million a year. Baltimore would become one of three cities with a population greater than 500,000 - out of 29 total - without an aviation unit.

Rawlings-Blake's plan would also eliminate two other special police units - the marine and mounted police - council members said.

Three fire companies, either engines or trucks, would be mothballed, and four other companies would continue to close on a rolling basis, they said.

About one-third of the Recreation and Parks Department's $24 million operating budget would be slashed, and several rec centers are expected to close.

Council members and city leaders said they understood the gravity of the city's financial situation but were concerned about the impact of the cuts - particularly those to the public safety and recreation and parks budgets.

"I don't think the citizens are going to be happy if we close rec centers," said Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who chairs the council's budget committee. "Maybe we'll be saving money on one end, but we'll wind up paying for it in the long run."

The cuts to the parks program would necessitate an overhaul of the department, said Chris Delaporte, a former director of the department and a commissioner on its advisory board. "The old model wasn't made for this kind of reduction," he said, adding that the city will need to partner with nonprofits to provide rec programs.

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger said he was already receiving calls from residents who were worried that their rec centers might be closing.

The mayor inherited a budget decimated by plummeting tax revenues, ballooning pension costs and sharp declines in state aid. And her preliminary plan does not address a $64 million increase in the amount the city must pay the fire and police pension plan this year. The administration hopes to the solve the pension problem with new legislation before the new budget year.

The process of crafting this year's spending plan will be "a brutal, life-changing event that will require painful sacrifices by everyone," said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor.

O'Doherty declined to confirm specifics of the mayor's proposed budget Wednesday, but he said Rawlings-Blake intends to draft a plan, with the council's input, that would allow "fully funding our obligation to public education, maintaining every police patrol officer and funding efforts to dismantle gang networks and reduce gun violence, reduce firehouse closings, all without raising the property tax."

The mayor plans to cut 10 percent from her own office's budget, through reducing staff, eliminating three vehicles from its fleet and folding the Office of International Affairs into the Office of Neighborhoods, among other cuts.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has ordered a 5 percent cut across the council's budget.

The spending plan the administration will present next week will be based solely on current sources of revenue. The mayor believes some of the cuts in the current plan "cross the line" and are "unacceptable," O'Doherty said.

But those cuts could be mitigated if the council adopts some of the taxes and fees she is proposing.

The city has long sought measures to derive more revenue from the many large nonprofit institutions in town that do not pay property taxes. One of the mayor's proposals calls for charging hospitals and colleges an annual fee of $250 per bed. The administration is also floating a plan to hike telephone land line and energy taxes, which could bring in funds from nonprofits and businesses.

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