Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, center, tells… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
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 homicides 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 million budget shortfall by slashing programs. The proposal, with deep and unpopular cuts to police, fire and recreation, is expected to help Rawlings-Blake make a case for a package of new taxes and fees that she is announcing in two weeks.
Under the current plan, seven fire companies would cease operations, the majority of the city's recreation centers would close and bulk trash pickups would halt.
Speaking at the first in a series of public hearings on the budget, Bealefeld told Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt that the deep cuts would derail the department's success in driving down violent crimes.
Under the initial budget scenario, the Police Department would lose its helicopter, marine and mounted 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 said. 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."
Moreover, sworn officers - who receive higher salaries - would replace laid-off civilians in key roles, he said.
City budget director Andrew W. Kleine disputed Bealefeld's assessment, saying that no more than 165 officers would be laid off under the spending plan. The Finance Department took union rules into account when drawing up the budget, which calls for any laid-off patrol officers to be replaced with an officer from another sector, he said.
The Police Department would require an additional $16 million to maintain current staffing, Kleine said. General funds diverted to the department were cut by $10 million, he said.
The city could jeopardize as much as $10 million in federal funds if officers are laid off because the most recent hires were paid for with stimulus dollars, Bealefeld said.
"The moment we lay off the first cop, the money's gone," Bealefeld said.
But Kleine said there was a chance the city could keep the aid.
He defended the cuts to the police and fire departments, 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 than 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 but would still be paid at higher levels under union rules.
"There are no budget savings in demotions," Clack said.
Bob Sledgeski, president of the firefighters union, 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 we're talking about taking their jobs from them," he said.
Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that she intends 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 a citizens panel - has met with opposition from grocery stores, liquor distributors and bottling firms.
One bright spot amid the bleak fiscal news came Thursday 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.