Tough road ahead

Our view: Mayor Rawlings-Blake deserves credit for her openness in describing budget cuts, but we need more details about tax and fee increases she favors

March 25, 2010

What mayors, county executives and governors are supposed to say when they unveil their spending plans is something like, "This is a tough, fiscally responsible budget that protects our most important priorities." But that's not what Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake is saying. The budget her administration released Wednesday is tough all right, but it doesn't come close to protecting the city's top priorities, and she doesn't try to sugarcoat that fact.

The cuts outlined in this preliminary plan are actually worse than the initial reports that leaked out last week - seven fire companies would close, as would more than half of the city's rec centers; police officers would be laid off, and civic traditions like the Fourth of July fireworks and the Preakness Parade are goners unless the private sector steps up to fund them. This stage in the city's budget process requires the finance department to present the Board of Estimates with a spending plan balanced solely with existing revenue sources, not any new taxes or fees, and recent cuts in state aid coupled with dropping income tax revenue make for an ugly picture indeed.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake deserves credit for her forthrightness about the city's fiscal situation. Her office issued a summary of the budget that's notably short on back-patting and long on detailed explanations of what's protected in the budget, what's cut, and why.

But where she's been a bit more coy is in saying what she plans to do about cuts she says are unacceptable. Ms. Rawlings-Blake says she intends to submit a plan to mitigate the spending reductions with $50 million in new revenues that will "equalize sacrifices among citizens, businesses and nonprofits."

The mayor has been specific about avoiding a property tax increase (an essential commitment given the burden that tax already places on the city's residents) but has not said much about what other options she'll propose. Ideas such as increasing energy taxes, adding a fee on bottles and cans or possibly even seeking some limited end to the exemption nonprofits enjoy from property taxes have been floated, either by her office or through her transition team reports, but the mayor has given no clear signal about which she will pursue. That, she says, will come at the City Council meeting on April 12.

Some council members have quietly groused that the mayor is orchestrating a campaign to make the cuts look dire in order to build support for her tax and fee increases. That's not entirely fair; the budget problems the city faces really are that bad.

Baltimore has a $2.2 billion budget, but relatively little of it is discretionary. About $700 million is federal and state grant funds that can't be diverted to help keep cops on the street. Of the remaining $1.5 billion, about $700 million is taken up by fixed costs - contributions to pension funds, health benefits, state-mandated education spending and insurance. That leaves about $800 million in discretionary spending, and in that context, the $120 million looms much larger. Half of Baltimore's discretionary funds go to the police and fire departments, so sparing them from cuts would be close to impossible without shutting down other major chunks of the city government entirely.

But even if Ms. Rawlings-Blake isn't exaggerating the magnitude of the cuts needed, letting the city stew over these reductions for 19 days before proposing an alternative certainly stacks the deck in her favor. Those interested in reversing the cuts will have a major head start on those who might be concerned about the effects of the proposed tax increases.

The mayor is right in seeking a balanced plan to weather this fiscal crisis. But that plan deserves a balanced debate. The sooner Ms. Rawlings-Blake can give Baltimore a full picture of her proposal, the better.

Readers respond
How about taking a pay cut, Mrs. Mayor and council? Your current salaries are pretty high, and cuts could save a few jobs of the hard-working police and firemen. We definitely need to take a hard look at the decision makers, and if they were paid on more of a performance-based salary, they might take the right steps to lead the city in the right direction.

Dan

Mayor Rawlings-Blake will certainly be lambasted no matter what choices she makes regarding the budget. I feel for her. I respect her being forthright regarding the expected cuts and not sugarcoating the dire straits. The situation is real and the consequences are spelled out.

NotableM

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