Comprehensive Budget Awaits Council Approval

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Without additional revenue, Baltimore City could lose seven fire companies, sworn police officers and police helicopters, dozens of recreation centers and swimming pools and 606 filled positions to close the budget gap. But on Monday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake released a comprehensive budget that generates $50 million in new funds, as well as $70 million in spending reductions, both of which are awaiting City Council approval.

“If we don’t fix this budget the right way, public safety and essential services are at risk,” she said. “I will not let that happen.”

The Comprehensive Plan for Fiscal 2011 will fully fund the city’s obligation to public schools, maintain all police officers and firefighters, keep libraries open and fund effective after-school programs without raising property taxes.

But these savings do not come free. To preserve as much funding as possible for direct services to citizens, the budget also includes $36 million in general savings, by extending the fiscal 2010 furlough plan, freezing pay increases, and implementing a new prescription drug employee cost-sharing plan. 

“These savings ask much from our hard working city employees, but will prevent the abolishment of up to 700 positions,” Rawlings Blake said. “City government must tighten its belt and get more value for every single tax dollar.”

Furthermore, the city’s strategy to acquire new and diversified revenue will come from the pockets and paychecks of Baltimore City residents. For instance, if City Council approves the budget, commercial, nonprofit and residential energy uses will pay slightly more in energy tax that is expected to earn the city $8.16 million and promote energy conservation.
The budget proposal also calls for an income tax increase from 3.05 percent to 3.2 percent, which would cost average workers $48 a year or $1.84 a paycheck. 

Parking meters are also suggested to go up in Fells Point, Harbor East, Downtown, Federal Hill and Mt. Vernon by increasing the hourly parking rate from $1 to $2 per hour to generate $3.1 million for Baltimore and encourage the use of public transportation. Parking fines will also increase by 20 percent and are projected to rake in an extra $1.6 million. 

“High on my list are important services that keep the city clean, including restoring graffiti removal crews, vacant property boarding and cleaning, mechanical street sweeping, and corner can collection, all of which are reduced in the preliminary plan,” Rawlings Blake said. The mayor’s preliminary budget proposed closing 29 of the city’s recreation centers and most of the pools. However, she said funding will be restored to all centers throughout the summer while a long-term recreation center plan is developed, and all pools will be open for six or seven weeks this summer, if City Council approves the budget.

“I do have some concerns about the residency energy tax, taxing them on their gas and electric use,” City Council Vice President Ed Reisinger said. “But in order to keep the essential services that we have right now and so we don’t see any closings of rec centers and fire houses and let go of police officers, I support the Comprehensive Plan. We’ve just got to work together. We’re all going to have to feel the pain.”

Local NAACP President Marvin Cheatham said some of the city councilors are acting as if the $121 million deficit just appeared over night and feels they are a part of the problem. While he is “elated” that the new budget proposal will keep open pools and recreation centers, he is opposed to generating revenue by increasing taxes for Baltimore City residents.

“We should be taxing the folks that work in the city but don’t live here,” Cheatham said, suggesting a commuter tax. “You’re hurting people in the city.”

In a statement released Monday, City Council President Jack Young noted the city’s need to increase revenue should not place an “inappropriate financial burden” on residents and said he would propose alternative revenue-generating solutions.

“My colleagues and I will spend the next couple weeks pouring over Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s new budget plan,” Young said. “The coming weeks and months will prove difficult, but I am certain that Baltimore will emerge stronger and better-positioned for the future.”