City residents turn out to air budget complaints

April 07, 2010|By Julie Scharper | julie.scharper@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Shouting "Save our jobs" and "Save our kids," more than 500 residents, youth advocates and union members streamed into a public meeting Wednesday evening to call for Baltimore's top officials to reverse deep cuts to parks and recreation and preserve the jobs of city workers.

The impassioned crowd pleaded with leaders to halt plans to close more than half the city's rec centers and swimming and wading pools and to fully fund the recreation and parks department, which was eviscerated in a preliminary budget scenario proposed by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's administration.

"We're not going to shut up. We're not going to sit down. We're not going to stop making noise until every one of our children has a safe place to play this summer," said Bishop Douglas Miles, co-chair of the BUILD interfaith coalition, which led a rally in front of the War Memorial Building.

The meeting provided a first chance for residents to publicly air their grievances about the grim spending plan, which seeks to close a $121 million gap in the $2.2 billion budget by slashing city services and laying off more than 600 city employees, including 120 police officers and 90 firefighters. Seven fire companies would be shuttered and several police units, including the helicopter and mounted police, would be disbanded.

The preliminary budget is expected to help Rawlings-Blake rally support for a $50 million package of taxes and fees that she will present at Monday's City Council meeting.

Critics charged that the budget -- which includes deep cuts to programs that benefit youth and seniors -- neglects the city's most vulnerable residents.

NAACP president Marvin "Doc" Cheatham asked how future generations would judge city leaders for cutting recreation programs in a city plagued by violent crime and drugs and soaring rates of youth obesity.

"Mayor and City Council, you are about to fail morally on all tests," Cheatham said.

The recreation and parks department is hit particularly hard in the budget, losing nearly a third of its $31 million general funds. Advocates implored city leaders to keep the rec centers and pools open and to restore funding for park maintenance.

"It is not OK to cut the maintenance of our parks from the current bare bones, inadequate level of 12 people per park to a ridiculous five people," said Carolyn Wainwright, president of the parks department's advisory board.

Members of city unions packed the hall, some waving signs depicting city finance director Edward Gallagher and deputy mayor Christopher Thomaskutty -- two of the budget's chief architects -- that noted their salaries were each equal to those of four of the average union member.

"We're not going to allow the city to balance the budget on the backs of the working men and women we represent," said AFSCME president Glennard Middleton.

Rawlings-Blake, who arrived at the meeting an hour late due to what a spokesman described as a "private meeting that went long," addressed the crowd, saying she hoped some of the cuts could be reversed through new taxes and fees.

"Just like a family can't spend money that's not in that pay check, the city can't spend money it doesn't have," she said.

Several dozen people protested one of Rawlings-Blake's proposed fees -- a four cent tax on beverage containers.

Rob Santoni, CEO of Santoni's supermarket, said a similar tax imposed in the early 1990s cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars by pushing customers to the surrounding counties.

"It's bad for the city to look to businesses to bail them out of their problems," he said. "They don't bail us out of ours."

Baltimore Sun reporter Robbie Whelan contributed to this article.

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