City finds $470,000 to maintain 311 hours

Baltimore's nonemergency call center will remain open under its current hours — a reversal of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's planned cuts to the 311 program's budget — under a plan approved by the city spending board Wednesday.

The $470,000 call center appropriation represents the latest in a series of tweaks to Rawlings-Blake's $1.3 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The mayor closed a $61 million spending gap primarily through cuts to services and benefits.

After threatening to cut hours at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Rawlings-Blake boosted the library system's budget by $600,000 to $33.4 million. She also pledged an additional $50,000 to the Youth Works summer jobs program, after last-minute pleas from City Council members as they prepared to vote on her budget.

Despite calls from youth advocates, the mayor has not reversed cuts to the budget for recreation centers or lengthened hours for pools, which will be open on a staggered schedule this summer.

"You can't please everybody," Rawlings-Blake said after the Board of Estimates meeting. "It's about juggling resources and trying to do more with less."

Rawlings-Blake said "creative scheduling" increased hours at the large pools that are used by the most people. Although the large pools are open for regular hours, smaller neighborhood pools will not open until July 9, which prompted a protest this week by children participating in an East Baltimore summer camp.

Last year, nearly $500,000 in private donations kept the pools open until the end of summer. Rawlings-Blake had planned to close them two weeks before school started as a cost-saving measure.

This year, she increased funding for pools by $600,000 from last year's budget, to a total of $2 million.

Rawlings-Blake noted that all rec centers would remain open throughout the summer and were offering summer programs. As many as half of the 55 centers are slated to be handed over to nonprofits, businesses or community groups, or face closure in January, under a planned overhaul.

She said the library is taking key steps to "address the digital divide" — as the poor are less likely to have computer access. "The library has been doing more with less, and we wanted to make sure that funding was there."

The Board of Estimates allocated an additional $470,000 to keep the 311 call center open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day. Rawlings-Blake had initially planned to reduce the hours and to no longer offer non-emergency police services, such as writing police reports for minor thefts, on weekends.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake stressed the importance of the 311 call center, which lays the groundwork for citizen requests to city agencies on everything from trash-strewn allies to noisy bars.

Still, spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said, the extra spending is a one-time solution, and the service might need to be cut next year.

The additional money for the call center comes from funds that were not spent in the fiscal year that ends June 30, said budget director Andrew W. Kleine.

Nearly two dozen city agencies have asked the finance department to allow them to use more than $16 million in unspent funds during the fiscal year that begins Friday.

The recreation and parks department has a $250,000 surplus for the current budget year, and has requested to spend it on data processing and security equipment, printing, advertising, office machines and furniture, and rec center maintenance, according to the spending board's agenda.

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