Rawlings-Blake offers a strategic budget

Our view: Mayor's spending plan benefits from the tough choices she and City Council members made last year

March 30, 2011

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget proposal for the next fiscal year is hardly pain free. But it is nowhere near as ugly as the spending plan she submitted last year, when she initially suggested filling a $121 million shortfall in part by firing police officers and fire fighters before instead building support for $50 million in tax increases. This time, she faces a $65 million hole that she is resolving without tax increases and with just one new revenue: a fee for bulk trash pickup. Rather than the doomsday scenario Ms. Rawlings-Blake unveiled last year, this one relies on strategic spending cuts that point the way toward a more stable and effective city government.

A big reason that the mayor faces a less daunting task this year is the police and fire pension reform package she proposed a year ago, and which is under challenge by municipal unions in federal court. The reforms — which include raising the number of years of service needed before retirement for most current employees, among other measures — are saving the city $80 million this year. Efforts to rein in health care costs, particularly prescription drug benefits, bring those savings to $100 million a year.

Although union officials have expressed wariness about the mayor's efforts at further cuts in health benefits, she appears to be going about them in a smart way. About 66 percent of the prescriptions filled by city employees and retirees are for generic drugs, and every percentage point the city is able to increase that results in $1.2 million in savings. So, in order to encourage generics, the mayor is proposing to reduce the copay for those drugs but to increase it for name-brand medications. For now, the change will only affect retirees, who are not subject to union contracts, but the mayor would do well to seek the same system for active employees during labor negotiations.

Cuts to some services are similarly well targeted. The city's 311 call center, which handles non-emergency inquiries from residents, is currently staffed from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. The mayor proposes saving $1 million by changing the hours to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week. This makes sense — after all, if it's not an emergency, it can wait until business hours.

The biggest fight the mayor is likely to face is over her plan to withdraw city support for about half of the city's 55 recreation centers. They are a particular cause of concern for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who fought successfully to avoid rec center closures last year. But he should consider the mayor's proposal carefully.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake's plan is premised on the notion that many of the rec centers are in poor repair and offer little if any programming for the children who use them. Her idea is to focus the city's resources on a smaller number of centers, to increase their staffing and to dedicate capital funds to improving them. That would create a system in which the remaining centers won't be as convenient to all children, but they would offer the kind of structured activities that offer the greatest benefit to the community. Meanwhile, the city would continue its effort to find non-profit and other third-party partners to take over some of the centers it closed. The proposal is a cut to youth services but perhaps also a smarter way of doing things.

That's the idea behind the "outcome budgeting" process the city has adopted. Rather than simply allocating the available money among existing programs, the mayor has set a series of broad goals — safer streets, stronger neighborhoods, better schools, etc. — and developed strategies for how to achieve them. Working groups assess city programs based on how they achieve those goals and recommend increasing or decreasing funding based on how effective they are. The approach led the city to cut off funding for the mentorship program Baltimore Rising, for example, or for an arts grants program that spread funds too widely to do much good. But the process led the mayor to increase appropriations for some youth violence prevention and after school programs that had proved effective.

No budget is perfect, particularly in times of stagnant revenues and growing demands. In particular, cuts to library hours proposed in the budget are regrettable. But this proposal isn't a scare tactic to build support for new revenues or an indiscriminate whack at city services. It reflects a thoughtful approach to spending and the basis for making city services more effective and less costly.

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