Commissioner: Police cuts threaten declining crime rates

March 25, 2010|By Julie Scharper | Baltimore Sun reporter

Baltimore could lose as many as 300 police officers, significantly more than initial projections, under Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's preliminary budget, the police commissioner said Thursday.

Chopping $16 million from the department would decimate it and destroy years of progress in reducing murders and violent crimes, Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said.

"We estimate it would take 10 years for the city to recover from a blow like that," Bealefeld said.

The proposed cuts to the police department come as part of a budget released by the Finance Department this week that closes a $121 budget shortfall by slashing programs. The proposal, with deep and unpopular cuts to the police, fire and recreation departments, is expected to help Rawlings-Blake make a case for a package of new taxes and fees that she is announcing in two week.

Under the current plan, seven fire companies would cease operations, the majority of the city's recreation centers would close and the road repair budget would be hacked in half.

Speaking at the first in a series of public hearing on the budget, Bealefeld told Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt that the deep cuts would derail the department's dramatic success in driving down violent crimes.

Under the initial budget scenario, the police department would lose its helicopter, marine and mounted police units. The plan calls for nearly 200 sworn officer positions and 50 civilian jobs to be eliminated, but would not lay off any current patrol officers.

However, under the department's contract with the union, the officers who most recently joined the force would lose their jobs first, Bealefeld explained. Therefore, although the proposal calls for layoffs for officers in the Homeland Security and internal affairs divisions, among others, the department would primarily lose young patrol officers.

"The paradox is those members who are the most recent hires, they're in uniform," said Bealefeld. "They're pushing radio cars in districts. They serve in the patrol division. They staff the midnight shifts in our neighborhoods." And newest officers collect the lowest salaries, which means that two rookies might need to be laid off to account for every senior job eliminated by the budget, Bealefeld said.

The city could jeopardize as much as $10 million in federal funds if officers are laid off since the most recent hires were paid for with stimulus dollars, he said.

"The moment we lay off the first cop, the money's gone," Bealefeld said.

But city budget director Andrew W. Kleine said that the program was more nuanced and there was a chance the city could keep the aid.

He defended the cuts to the police and fire department, explaining that the public safety agencies account for half of the city's discretionary spending. And other agencies lost an average of four times more general funds that police and fire, he said.

"We feel strongly that you can't fund one area to the exclusion of everything else," he said.

Fire Chief James S. Clack spoke at the same hearing, warning that it would take firefighters considerably longer to reach fires if seven companies are closed. And if the city lays off 90 firefighters -- as indicated by the budget -- captains and lieutenants would be demoted to fill their positions, yet still would be paid at higher levels under unions rules. "There are no budget savings in demotions," Clack said.

Union president Bob Sledgeski said the constant threat of layoffs wears on young firefighters.

"These are young people who have families, they're buying their first homes and every three months were talking about taking their jobs from them," he said. "They're going to destroy [firefighting] as a profession that people want to pursue in Baltimore city."

Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that she intended to restore some funding to public safety agencies if the council approves a collection of taxes and fees. Officials who have been briefed on the revenue package say it includes a boost to telecommunications and energy taxes, an excise tax on video poker machines and a bed tax for hospitals and colleges.

One proposed tax -- a small fee on beverages recommended by citizens' panel -- has already provoked outrage from a coalition of grocery stores, liquor distributors and bottling companies.

One bright spot amid the bleak fiscal news came Wednesday afternoon when MI Developments, an Ontario, Canada-based company that recently purchased the Pimlico and Laurel Park Race Courses, pledged to pay for the Preakness parade, which lost funding in the budget.

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