In a crisis, think big

Our view: With Baltimore City confronting a looming budget disaster, too many public officials retreat into small-minded thinking about major problems

May 14, 2010

Baltimore is staring at a $121 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year that threatens to force layoffs in the police department, closures of fire stations, drastic cuts to recreation and parks, furlough days, an end to bulk trash pickup and all manner of other reductions in vital city services. Things will only get worse if the city can't enact reforms to its pension system for police and firefighters.

Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, to her credit, has not shied away from the enormity of the problems and has tried at every turn to convey the message that the city's budget is in dire shape and will require plenty of uncomfortable decisions.

But the message, apparently, isn't getting through. City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is threatening to sue the city over the suggestion that she eliminate the jobs of 14 outreach workers who act as liaisons between the community and the District Court. That seems like overkill for a relatively small proportion of her office's 400-member staff and $27 million budget.

Ms. Jessamy says her staff has been cut repeatedly in recent years and that the paralegals she's now being asked to let go perform an essential task in her office by preparing court dockets for prosecutors. She argues that Ms. Rawlings-Blake's budget recommendation is unconstitutional because the mayor doesn't have the authority to make personnel cuts in the state's attorney's office.

Be that as it may, the mayor does have the power to set the state's attorney's office's overall budget — even if that requires additional personnel cuts on top of those Ms. Jessamy already has made. Ms. Jessamy clearly is convinced her office already has been cut to the bone — her office has 32 current vacancies among attorneys and support staff, totaling more than $2 million, plus furloughs worth $1 million. She says any further reductions would reduce its effectiveness, and as precedent she cites a 1995 Maryland attorney general's opinion affirming the right of then-Prince George's County State's Attorney Jack Johnson to sufficient funding to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities.

But under the circumstances, is a 4 percent reduction in Ms. Jessamy's budget out of line? If she can make the case that it would cripple her ability to prosecute criminals, or that the 14 outreach workers are the wrong place to make cuts, she should do it. Threatening a lawsuit doesn't help.

The City Council's focus on obscure parochial interests hasn't helped either.

This week, for example, council members spent two hours haggling over whether the budget documents regarding Ms. Rawlings-Blake's effort to replace city funding for salaries in the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications with private sources were sufficiently transparent. Most people don't even know what that office does and wouldn't miss the station if it went off the air entirely. Yet the council spent hours fuming about it.

Similarly, in preparation for a meeting to talk about the police department's budget, which Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has said would be devastating to crime-fighting efforts if the city doesn't find more money, the council asked questions about the racial makeup of the command staff, efforts to provide "constituent services" and the fate of federal grant money tied to a seat belt campaign. How does any of that relate to the crucial question of how to keep the city safe during a budget crisis? The City Council has a duty to carefully scrutinize the mayor's budget. That means they need to start asking the hard questions, not the distracting ones.

Meanwhile, opposition is mounting to the tax and fee increases Ms. Rawlings-Blake has proposed to ameliorate the budget situation. Their fate in the council is unclear, but no one has come up with anything resembling a workable alternative. The city's other leaders don't need to swallow the mayor's plan whole, but right now they seem paralyzed by irrelevant minutiae. When will they recognize that the magnitude of the problem the city is facing requires them to start thinking bigger?

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