Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has proposed to cut library and 311 hours, restructure city employee health benefit plans and halve the city’s contribution to recreation centers in an attempt to close a $65 million budget gap.

Her budget proposal, released last week, cuts 10 percent of the city’s administration costs without raising taxes and only charging an undetermined fee for trash pickup.

While the plan is based on a $2.7 billion city budget, over 8 percent less than last year, it increases the operating budget by $26 million and decreases the capital plan by 40 percent.

At a press briefing, Rawlings-Blake insisted that her proposal fully funds schools, street repairs and blight elimination through her Vacants to Value initiative. It also flatlines funds to the police and fire departments and supports recruitment of hundreds of new officers.

She called the budget decisions difficult, but “the right thing to do.”

“Through sacrifice and smart budgeting, we will ensure that city government tightens its belt to get more value for every tax dollar by doing what families are doing every day: making tough choices about what we can afford and focusing our scarce resources on core priorities,” she said.

City employees would still endure furloughs but lower-paid workers would see a 2 percent cost of living boost. An overhauled health benefits package for city staff and retirees would save $5 million this year and $10 million next year by encouraging workers to buy generic prescription drugs through higher co-pays for brand names and lower co-pays for generics.

The proposal cuts Enoch Pratt Library hours, eliminates 35 library positions and invests in 25 percent fewer books and database resources in an effort to save $700,000.

The 311 non-emergency call center would have 19 fewer positions and reduce hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week to peak hours to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week.

Last year’s plan to close city recreation centers prompted censure from local residents. This year Rawlings-Blake elected to save $1.5 million by funneling capital funding into 27 of the city’s 55 recreation centers and soliciting non-profit organizations and Baltimore City Public Schools to operate the remaining centers.

City Budget Director Andrew W. Kleine said it is unclear how many recreation centers would close, but budget documents estimate the city may shutter up to 10 centers. Although a few neighborhood and park pools would have shorter sessions, the mayor says some city pools would remain open throughout the summer.

The budget slashes funding for some after-school programs but increases maintenance support levels for city schools by $1.8 million and continues to fund some youth prevention and workforce programs. It also fully funds the city’s career centers, while trimming the budget for graffiti removal and animal services.

Baltimore’s $65 million shortfall, $16 million less than previous estimates, is based on updated revenue projections and anticipated state aid.

If the city receives more state funds than expected, Rawlings-Blake has vowed to restore money for some services hacked in the budget, including library hours. She’s also presented a 10-year financial plan to combat long-term fiscal challenges such as property taxes.

If approved by the Board of Estimates and the City Council, the budget takes effect July 1.

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO