By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun
8:51 PM EDT, October 13, 2011
Baltimore officials are bracing for the potential of another round of deep budget cuts as they draw up early spending plans with an eye toward addressing a "significant" shortfall next year.
City agency heads said they were instructed to pare 5 percent of their spending as they craft preliminary budget proposals for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The mayor's spokesman stressed that the administration was in the "very early stages of the budget process," and said that agency heads would be asked to draft proposals for other financial scenarios as well.
Fire Chief James S. Clack warned his employees of the possible cuts by posting on a union message board that he had been asked to trim $10 million from the department's budget.
Clack said in the post that the cuts would be tantamount to closing five of the city's 56 fire companies, in addition to the three that are currently closed on a rolling basis as a cost-saving measure.
The chief said in an interview that he wanted to provide firefighters with the context to understand the magnitude of the cuts, but he did not plan to close more companies.
"We don't know what we're going to propose for the 5 percent," Clack said, adding that the Finance Department would likely change its projections.
A Recreation and Parks Department spokeswoman said that her agency had also been ordered to draft a budget based on a 5 percent cut, but said that the figure was not definite.
"We're still working it out," said spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers. The department will likely close some recreation centers and turn others over to third parties before funding runs out in January as a result of shortfall in the budget for the current fiscal year.
Like other cities, Baltimore has grappled with significant budget shortfalls. Over the past three years, Baltimore officials have slashed services, instituted furloughs, laid off employees and raised more than 60 taxes and fees to close gaps.
Ryan O'Doherty, spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said officials "expect a significant budget shortfall" in the city's $1.9 billion operating budget for the coming year, but he declined to give the size of the deficit anticipated.
The city's budget director did not respond to requests for comment, and most agency leaders declined to comment.
In an email obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Rawlings-Blake's chief of staff, Peter O'Malley, instructed agency heads to alert O'Doherty if they received questions about the budget.
O'Doherty declined to comment beyond an emailed statement in which he stated that officials would "continue to assess revenue predictions."
"The mayor does not believe in across-the-board cuts," O'Doherty wrote, explaining that the finance officials use an "outcome budgeting" process in which successful programs receive more funding and floundering services lose funding.
Under the system, which the Finance Department has used for the past two budget cycles, agency heads are required to present preliminary spending plans in early November.
Officials review the spending plans and make alterations based on Rawlings-Blake's priorities, O'Doherty said.
Agency leaders said that finance officials had asked them to draft a budget that reduced spending by 5 percent but that also assumed employees would receive a 2.8 percent raise and that there would be no furlough days.
At Rawlings-Blake's request, the city hired a consulting firm to a $460,000 contract last month to draft a 10-year financial plan. Administration officials have indicated that employee benefits would likely need to be trimmed to ensure the city's long-term financial health — which will likely lead to a heated battle with unions.
Rawlings-Blake's overhaul of the fire and police pension system remains tied up in federal court. The public safety unions sued the city after Rawlings-Blake signed the measure, which significantly trims benefits, in 2010.
Fire union President Rick Hoffman said his group would "fight tooth and nail" against additional cuts to the department.
"I don't think the public can afford any more fire cuts," said Hoffman. "The public will not be as safe as they're accustomed to being."
Department of Public Works officials did offer a glimmer of hope for residents of the cash-strapped city. A fee for bulk trash pickups, which was slated to be imposed in January, would be postponed, a spokeswoman said Thursday.
Spokeswoman Celeste Amato said the city would likely not begin charging to haul away large objects until at least July, when the new budget year begins.
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