Worst-case city budget cuts police, fire, recreation

Rawlings-Blake says it shows what must be done if there are no new revenues

  • The Baltimore Police Department's helicopter would be grounded, its marine unit would be cut and the mounted police unit would be disbanded under the budget Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake presented Wednesday.
The Baltimore Police Department's helicopter would… (Baltimore Sun file photo )
March 25, 2010|By Julie Scharper | julie.scharper@baltsun.com

More than 600 city workers - including 120 police officers - would lose their jobs under a stark budget scenario presented Wednesday by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's administration.

Seven fire companies would close, 90 firefighters would be let go and more than half of the city's recreation centers would be shuttered under the preliminary plan, which would cut key services to close a $121 million shortfall in the city's $2.2 billion budget.

The locations of the rec centers, pools and fire companies that would close were not available Wednesday.

"We need to do what families are doing every day: be realistic and honest about what we can afford and focus funding on the core services that we really need," said Rawlings-Blake. But she was quick to add that the scenario, which was drafted by the Finance Department to show what the city would have to cut if it didn't raise taxes or fees, includes reductions that are "unacceptable and simply go too far."

She plans to back an alternative - a spending plan that will include $50 million in new taxes and fees to mitigate cuts, especially to public safety - when the City Council next meets April 12. The revenue-generating measures must pass the legislative body, mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said.

While it is unusual for a city to present budget cuts and a revenue package separately, analysts said it was politically savvy of Rawlings-Blake to start with the realities of a stripped-down spending plan. "What the mayor is doing is making a case for the revenue enhancements," said Ralph Martire, director of the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. "If you don't believe cuts are the best way to balance the budget, then you absolutely should lead with your most sensitive programs. That's the best way to get people's attention."

But union leaders accused the mayor of "posturing" and attempting to frighten residents into accepting new taxes by presenting a doomsday scenario.

"It's unfair to play games with city employees who are nervous about being laid off," said Robert F. Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "It's even more disingenuous to play these games with the citizens and taxpayers of Baltimore City who demand real answers from the leaders of the city during these tough times."

The Police Department would be hit especially hard under the plan, which would ground its helicopter, moor the marine units that patrol the Inner Harbor and disband its mounted police unit. Although the mayor has promised to maintain all patrol officers, 193 positions in the SWAT team, intelligence sector, traffic enforcement and special operations would be eliminated; 120 of those positions are now filled.

Under the department's contract with the unit, the officers who were hired last would be laid off first. The department hired 25 officers with a federal grant in January and plans to hire 25 more with the rest of the grant funds in July. If these officers were let go, the city would have to return $10 million to Washington, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

City budget director Andrew W. Kleine acknowledged that cutting the positions could put the grant at risk, but he said there was some flexibility in the program.

The Fire Department, which took deep cuts in last year's budget, would suffer again. Although the department's budget would grow by $2 million, three fire companies, either trucks or engines, would close permanently, and four daily rolling closures of fire companies would continue.

With the rising costs of workers' compensation, health insurance and other expenses, the department would need an additional $10.5 million to keep the companies open, Fire Chief James S. Clack said.

The city would "very likely see more fire deaths and injuries" if seven companies were closed, Clack wrote in a letter to firefighters. The mayor "has made it clear to me that public safety funding will be the first area of the budget to be restored if new revenue can be found," he wrote.

About $1.5 million would be cut from the Baltimore state's attorney's office, including about $800,000 in funding for 14 community outreach positions in the city's District Court.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who accused the mayor and city finance department of trying to undermine her, said the proposal violates the Maryland Constitution.

"I know for a fact that they cannot specifically cut programs in the office. They can grant me general funds under the budget, but it is constitutionally impermissible for them to usurp my authority" by specifying cuts, she said. "It is my obligation to do that, not the city's."

The proposal carves deeply into programs that enhance city life - it would shut down seven swimming pools, halt tree planting and curtail bulk trash pickups - and cuts public funds for beloved traditions such as the Preakness Parade.

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