The Board of Estimates approved Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s $2.7 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 last week. The plan now heads to the City Council for review.

Council members haven’t seen a detailed spreadsheet of the proposal, but a general budget overview is scheduled for May 11 in City Council chambers, according to an electronic budget process schedule.

A succession of four half-hour hearings will follow to hammer out the budget for the fire, finance and public works departments and the Office of Cable and Communications. The police department and the state’s attorney’s office will have separate hearings May 17, followed by other city agencies on May 18, 19 and 25. The Council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee will host a taxpayer’s night to accept public comment on the budget and the proposed constant yield tax rate, 6 p.m. May 18 at the War Memorial Building.

Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, chair of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, said the Council will vote on the financial plan in late June before it takes effect July 1.
Rawlings-Blake’s budget sketch plugs a $60 million gap by cutting 10 percent of the city’s administration costs, restructuring city employee health benefit plans, freezing pay for city managers and reducing various city services, including the 311 call center and animal services hours.

Conaway is most concerned about the cuts to employee health benefits and the in-limbo status of the city’s recreation centers, she said.

The budget halves city support for Baltimore’s 55 recreation hubs to save $1.5 million. Rawlings-Blake plans to solicit non-profits and Baltimore City Public Schools to operate the remaining centers.

But while many of Conaway’s constituents have submitted applications to donate time or programming to the centers, few have the funds needed — approximately $100,000 – to fully staff the centers.

As for health benefits, she says, “The ones that actually do the work don’t have the salaries. The least we can do is compensate them with benefits. I don’t want to see their health benefits reduced in any way.”

Rawlings-Blake’s budget charts an overhauled health benefits package for city staff and retirees by encouraging workers to buy generic prescription drugs through higher co-pays for brand names and lower co-pays for generics.

Conway is also uneasy about the possible elimination or charge for bulk trash pickup, noting that trash is already sprawled around her district and the new rules might exacerbate the issue.

She urged passionate residents to attend the taxpayer’s night and demand the services they want. “People need to come out,” she said. “If you believe the rec centers and pools should be open, you have to come out and say it.”

Rawlings-Blake’s preliminary proposal chopped library hours and allocated minimal funding to the city’s YouthWorks Summer Jobs program, but city officials say a $6 million jump in estimated state aid allowed the mayor to restore funding to the library at current levels and set aside $600,000 in additional support for YouthWorks.

The funds will aid 5,000 young people – the same amount as last year — as they land temporary employment this summer. The program’s aspect had looked bleak after federal stimulus dollars ran out last year.

Additional state funding also allows Rawlings-Blake to use $4.1 million to reduce employee furlough days. According to city leaders, employees will be furloughed between two and five days based on salary, compared to four to 11 days during fiscal year 2011.

The remaining $312,000 will be directed to the Vacants to Value Program, which overhauls the city’s property sales process and proffers incentives for residents to purchase abandoned homes in an effort to expedite the sale of vacant properties.

Rawlings-Blake’s financial plan increases the operating budget by $26 million and decreases the capital plan by 40 percent over last year.

The Board of Estimates took roughly one month to approve the budget, meeting with various city agencies and hosting a taxpayers’ night for public input.

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO