Pools, fire companies, recreation centers affected by Rawlings-Blake budget

Challenger criticizes mayor for maintaining property taxes at current levels

March 31, 2011|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

City swimming pools would open on a staggered schedule this summer, three fire companies would be closed daily and the 311 call center would be available less frequently under the preliminary budget unveiled Wednesday by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Rawlings-Blake would not raise taxes, but residents would be required to pay for bulk trash pickups beginning Jan. 1. The mayor's operating budget would increase spending by about 1 percent, to $2.29 billion, while filling a gap between projected revenue and expenses by cutting $65 million in services.

Rawlings-Blake, who is facing an election in the fall, said the budget "bucks national trends" by hiring 300 new police officers and fully funding the city's obligation to public schools without raising taxes.

"You can't manage your way out of the great recession," said Rawlings-Blake. "You need to lead the way out of the great recession."

Rawlings-Blake said her plan takes "further steps to fixing structural budget deficits." Changes to employee and retiree health benefits beginning Jan. 1 would save the city about $4.5 million next year and twice as much in subsequent years, according to budget documents.

Most city workers would receive a 2 percent cost-of-living increase to offset lost income from continuing furlough days. Those represented by the Managerial and Professional Society union, who are some of the highest-paid city workers, would not receive the increase, city budget director Andrew W. Kleine said. The furloughs and cost-of-living increase would result in a net savings of $3.5 million, he said.

Local economist Anirban Basu praised Rawlings-Blake for not raising taxes, but said the city would continue to lose residents and revenue unless property tax rates — nearly twice as high as those in surrounding jurisdictions — are cut.

"There are just too few people who are actually paying for city government," said Basu, the president of the economics consulting firm Sage Policy Group "Those taxpayers are beleaguered, and many have become fed up and left. Many of us believe if the city reduces property tax rates responsibly, it will actually grow the tax base by attracting new residents."

Likely mayoral challenger Otis Rolley criticized the plan, saying that it cut the services on which middle-class families most depend.

"Where we're getting cut to the bone is in the neighborhoods," said Rolley, who attended the mayor's budget presentation Wednesday before the Board of Estimates. "We're not getting cut to the bone in City Hall. It continues to be an assault on the middle class and our neighborhoods."

Rolley, the city's former planning director, described Rawlings-Blake's budget as a "status quo" spending plan that did little to stanch the decline in population and jobs. The most recent census count shows that the city shrank by 30,000 residents in the past decade.

Rolley is campaigning on a platform of lowering property taxes to retain current residents while attracting newcomers. He says he would reduce expenses by increasing government efficiency. He has not released specifics.

Rawlings-Blake has announced plans to craft a 10-year plan to overhaul the city's finances.

Under her budget, three firehouses would be closed each day. The city now closes two companies daily on a rolling basis; three were closed daily until late last year.

Swimming pools would open on a staggered schedule through the summer. The large pools at Druid Hill Park and Patterson Park would be open only on weekends from Memorial Day until June 18, and then would open on weekdays and weekends from June 25 until Labor Day. Six park pools would be open for 10 weeks, and 13 walk-to pools would be open for six weeks. Splash pools that are not connected to a swimming pool would be closed.

More than half of the city's 55 recreation centers would be turned over to nonprofits or other third-party groups. If groups are not found to take over the centers by the beginning of next year, Rawlings-Blake said, some of them could be closed.

At the Oliver recreation center on the corner of Spring Avenue and Federal Street, 15-year-old Oliver Robinson said he wouldn't know where he would play basketball if the center closed.

His mother said she didn't feel it was right to close the center. "The children don't have any place to go, especially in the summer" when school is out, Gwynn Robinson said. She wasn't sure volunteers could sustain the center.

"I'm the only parent here," she said, but "it may work."

Recreation and Parks director Gregory Bayor said he had received "incredible interest" from groups seeking to run centers and was hopeful that even some centers that had previously been closed could be reopened.

The preliminary budget calls for library hours to be reduced, but Rawlings-Blake said the hours could be restored if the city receives additional funding from the state.

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