By Erica L. Green and Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun
9:18 AM EDT, June 21, 2011
The Baltimore City Council voted Monday to approve a $1.3 billion operating budget for next year, in spite of last-minute protests by residents and a city councilman who wanted to restore funding to a summer youth employment program.
Council members voted 14-1 to approve the budget proposed by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for the fiscal year that begins July 1, with only Councilman Carl Stokes voting against it.
Stokes, who says he will be running for mayor but has yet to file, made a last-ditch effort before the vote to add more summer jobs for youth by cutting the Baltimore Police Department budget by $7 million. The measure was lauded, but ultimately rejected, by council members. The city will offer 2,000 fewer youth jobs than in past years.
Rawlings-Blake, who is running to retain her seat, joined council members in emphasizing that the budget closed a $65 million deficit without burdening residents with an increase in property taxes.
"Baltimore, like most cities, is still feeling the effects of the Great Recession," Rawlings-Blake said after the vote. "Through sacrifice and smart budgeting, city government is tightening its belt to get more value for taxpayers by doing what families are doing everyday — making tough choices and doing more with less."
The budget increases spending by about 1 percent but closes a revenue shortfall by eliminating about $65 million in expenses, including a 10 percent cut to administrative costs across city agencies.
Under city budget rules, the council could have cut from the mayor's plan, but did not have the authority to tack on additional spending.
Residents will likely not feel a pinch in Rawlings-Blake's budget until January — after the mayoral election — when an as-yet unspecified fee for bulk trash pickup is scheduled to take effect.
And the fate of more than half the city's recreation centers remains in limbo. Rawlings-Blake has cut more than $1 million from their budget over the past two years, and has announced plans to seek nonprofits, businesses and community groups to run 26 of the 55 centers.
It remains unclear how many rec centers will be turned over and whether any will close in the handover slated for January. The centers' budget of $10.2 million represents a $500,000 cut from last year's allocation.
The city maintained its full funding obligation to the school system next year, but will trim afterschool programs. Hours are to be cut at the city's 311 call center, graffiti removal and tree maintenance will be scaled back, and funding for animal services was trimmed.
Three hundred more police officers are to be hired under next year's budget. City workers will face from two to five days of furloughs, depending on how much they earn, but they will receive a 2 percent cost-of-living increase to offset lost wages.
Current workers and retirees will see cuts in prescription drug benefits, which the city says will save about $4.5 million.
"We recognize that we are asking our [residents and employees] to once again hang in there with us," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. But he said budget cuts were not as painful as last year's.
Advocates for city youth protested the mayor's plan to reduce the number of summer jobs offered by YouthWorks, the division of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development that coordinates city-funded summer jobs.
Federal stimulus funds had enabled the program to employ about 7,000 youths. This year, the program will employ about 5,000. The mayor agreed last week to add $50,000 to the program, enough to fund about 42 jobs.
Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who chairs the budget and appropriations committee, said, "$50,000 was a great win, because it could have been zero."
Before the council vote, more than 30 teenagers and young adults gathered in front of City Hall to object to the reduction. Several community groups rallied outside City Hall to demand more money.
The protesting groups, who had been supported by Conaway and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke in last week's push for more jobs funds, wanted the council to add $6 million for youth employment, said Bryant Muldrew, 23, a math teacher at Heritage High School in Clifton Park and an educational organizer with the Algebra Project.
"If the objective is to prevent crime, keep them distracted," Muldrew said. "The city seems to be taking away all of those distractions."
The protesters approached members of the council as they entered the building and urged them to reject the mayor's budget.
"Crime control doesn't promote community safety, opportunity does," said Autumn Walker, 17.
Walker is a youth ambassador for Baltimore Safe and Sound Campaign, a youth advocacy group that was at the fore of Monday's gathering. The mayor's budget, Walker said, gives teens the impression that city officials do not have high hopes for Baltimore's youth.
Councilman Stokes echoed these sentiments before the final council vote, arguing that while the city has just as many police officers as other cities, crime continues to rise. He called the mayor's plan "grossly unfair" to city youth, who he said would find more "juvenile justice" in jobs than in jails.
"If we give the money to the young people, that's crime control," Stokes said. "And much more effective than what we think we're doing now."
Clarke, whose Northern District experienced two murdered children in recent weeks, said she couldn't support cutting the Police Department while her district mourns the city's youngest homicide victims in years.
"They were youth, too, and they're gone," Clarke said of the victims, which included a 12-year-old boy.
"[The families] couldn't mend their lives, but they wanted justice," she added. "I can't cut the police budget with all that I'm asking them to do in the Northern District."
Community leaders said they were disappointed with the budget vote.
"A great disservice was done to our kids today," said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, of the Baltimore City Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Usually in an election season, politicians kiss babies. The opposite happened today."
Rawlings-Blake said she would soon release a "Children's Budget" detailing investments and strategies for supporting city youth.
Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.
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