Baltimore's doomsday budget

Our view: The next few months will reveal what our new mayor's priorities are

March 19, 2010

Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake came into office last month with a huge budget deficit but also a promise to set priorities to protect the services that are most essential and to let go those things the city can no longer afford. She wasn't terribly specific at the time about what that meant in practical terms, and so it would be easy to grow alarmed about the details City Council members have heard so far about how the budget is shaping up.

The preliminary plan calls for the closure of three fire stations and the continuation of rotating closures; the elimination of the police helicopter, marine and mounted units; the end of bulk trash collection; and the closure of rec centers. If that's what the mayor considers low priorities, we'd have reason to be concerned, indeed.

But the plan taking shape is ultimately not what the mayor wants to do. The document being prepared now by the finance department reflects only what Baltimore can afford based on its current revenue picture, without adding in any new fees or taxes. Given the magnitude of the budget problem Baltimore faces for the fiscal year that begins in July -- a shortfall of $120 million, which is roughly comparable to the fire department's entire budget -- such a plan would inevitably look dire.

It's not unusual, as some council members have noted, for an executive to float a budget so scary that it builds support for tax or fee increases. But when it comes to that tactic, we may have crossed the line between political ploy and realistic assessment. Public safety accounts for about 20 percent of Baltimore's budget, and it has largely been spared in previous budget cuts. Without new revenue, something is eventually going to have to give.

It's important to remember that we are at the very beginning of a budget process that will extend into June, and it is too early to take full measure of Ms. Rawlings-Blake's priorities. We need to see exactly what new revenues she proposes and which cuts from this doomsday budget she wants to reverse. The mayor has already indicated that she will not support a general property tax increase, which is the right stance given the role Baltimore's sky-high rate plays in making the city uncompetitive with surrounding jurisdictions. But that doesn't mean we should support any and all other potential revenue sources.

Likewise, real indications of where her priorities lie will come at the point when we see what she spends any new revenues on. Rec centers or fire houses? Bulk trash collection or mounted police patrols? Those choices will give the measure of her leadership.

The situation also provides a test for the City Council and its new president, Bernard C. "Jack" Young. The council has historically played a smaller role in the budget process than do its counterparts in the suburbs. In some part, that reflects the reluctance of council members to stand up to a mayor who can stop filling potholes in their districts, but it also is a function of the lack of resources the council has to analyze budget proposals and the lack of information provided to the council by the mayor. Ms. Rawlings-Blake, who tried last year to stand up to former Mayor Sheila Dixon, knows that well and has publicly expressed frustration about it, which should give Mr. Young and his colleagues greater opportunity to scour the budget for savings.

The early indications about Baltimore's next budget should not give cause to panic about the city or its new mayor. But they should serve as an indication of the stakes we face if our city leaders don't set the right priorities in the months ahead.

Readers respond

Shades of 2007 with Gov. O'Malley's doomsday announcements about the state budget unless his tax increases passed. Is this responsible governing?

John

The city cries poverty yet they continue to add 5 percent to 20 percent on construction projects with prevailing wages and MBE requirements. I love the city telling us the $27 an hour we pay our employees in the county isn't enough. On city jobs we must pay them $40 per hour. Talk about getting your priorities straight!

Stop the waste

I sincerely hope that bulk trash pick up goes back in first. It may sound petty, but the fact is, eliminating it as an option would have a huge impact on the city.

We already have trash strewn everywhere -- just imagine if citizens didn't even have the option of a pick-up for that old couch that's getting trashed.

CityRes

The saddest thing about all municipalities and their budget woes is that the one budget component that is continually overlooked is the biggest expense of all: payroll. If you want to fix the budget now, reduce the payroll for all non-safety positions except teachers.

Rob

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