'We budget our money, you budget yours'

Seniors protest rec program cuts

May 25, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Scores of retirees and elderly people packed City Council chambers Tuesday to make an emotional plea to save senior recreation programs from the city's massive budget cuts.

Without the classes, lunches and outings, "most of the seniors who can't get around, won't get around," said Elaine Green, 66, of Oliver. "They'll just be sitting in their apartments waiting to die."

The seniors' testimony marked some of the most spirited moments of a day crammed with a final round of hearings on Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's proposed budget.

The mayor and council are hashing out a series of compromises on $50 million in new taxes and fees to offset a $121 million gap in the city's $2.2 billion budget.

A four-cent tax on bottled beverages, one of the most lucrative — and controversial — new tariffs received a significant boost Tuesday when Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, initially one of its most vociferous opponents, signaled her support of the measure.

"I have to rethink this if there's a shortfall," said Spector, who represents Northwest Baltimore. The councilwoman had previously said she opposed the bottle tax, since her parents had been store owners and she understood the concerns of retailers who worried the tariff would push shoppers out of the city.

Last week, Spector stood with seven other council members who presented an alternative revenue plan that would generate around $42 million without a bottle tax. But estimates from the city's finance department indicated that some of the proposed taxes would not be as lucrative as the council members had hoped.

The revenue generated by the taxes would reverse many of the cuts to key programs, including fire, police and recreation and parks.

The senior recreation division, which sponsors "Golden Age" clubs at churches, rec centers and high-rise apartment buildings, lost its entire $349,000 budget in the preliminary spending plan. Four full-time employees and 20 part-time staffers run the program, which is only partially subsidized by the small fees seniors pay for activities.

According to a prioritized list of budget restoration drafted by Rawlings-Blake, the program could be fully funded if the council finds $36 million in new tax revenue, budget director Andrew Kleine said at the hearing before the council's recreation and parks subcommittee. The bulk of the tax money would be directed to police and fire.

Councilwoman Agnes Welch, 85, who had called for yesterday's hearing, noted that the programs provide exercise, social time and transportation for many who would otherwise be homebound.

The seniors, many of whom used wheelchairs or canes, reminded the council members that they are politically active.

"We have helped to build Baltimore, to make it the city it is today, and we vote," said Ellen C. Johns, 86, a retired elementary school principal from West Baltimore. "If you want our support, give us your support."

Others gently chided the city's leaders for their spending decisions.

"We budget our money, you budget yours," said 63-year-old Lana Jenkins.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/juliemore

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