Facing shutdown threat over youth funding, Rawlings-Blake announces cuts to Baltimore services

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Mayor announces service cuts to avoid threat of government shutdown over youth funding dispute.

Funding for public health services, libraries and housing inspections will be cut in next year's budget to free up more than $4 million for youth programs, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Monday.

Members of the Baltimore City Council had threatened a government shutdown unless the mayor included the money for after-school programs and community schools in her $2.6 billion budget proposal.

Rawlings-Blake released few details of the new cuts, saying the administration "sharpened our pencils and made even more difficult budget cuts that will directly impact city services" in response to council leaders.

"Clearly there is little willingness on the part of the City Council leadership to enter into good faith negotiations to get things done," the mayor said in a statement. "Instead they have relied on pointless rhetoric versus meeting their fiscal obligations to the City.

"The City needs a balanced budget. Not grandstanding. That is what we are elected to do."

By law, the City Council must approve a balanced budget by June 26.

Rawlings-Blake's action drew mixed reactions.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he was pleased to see the money for the youth programs — which serve thousands of children and teens — but frustrated by Rawlings-Blake's approach. She announced her decision publicly before speaking to Young and other council members, he said.

"I'm dissatisfied with some of the cuts," Young said. "They should've included us and not blindsided us."

Other services that would be affected include graffiti removal and tree maintenance. Art museums, management of grants and merit pay for employees also would be affected. If approved by the council, the new budget will take effect July 1.

Carol Ott, a leading city housing advocate, said she couldn't argue against funding programs for young people but is concerned about cuts to code enforcement. Inspectors protect children by helping to ensure they live in safe housing, she said.

"Cutting code enforcement is shortchanging the kids who are impacted by blight and substandard housing," Ott said. "It's a wonderful thing to put more money toward youth programming, but these kids have to go home at the end of the day. If they are going home to substandard housing, how is that a win for anybody?"

Ott said city leaders should have worked more closely together to find cuts that did not affect services. A closer analysis of spending could have found areas where money is wasted, she said.

The community group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, considered the mayor's action a victory after it rallied hundreds to push for more funding for after-school programs and community schools.

The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, BUILD's co-chair, said the city "couldn't go back to business as usual" after the riots spurred by the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody.

"This will mean we can sustain programs and keep promises to children," he said.

The mayor said she originally cut $4.2 million in funding for youth programs to help close a $60 million budget deficit. Her budget proposal recommended allocating $265 million for public school students from kindergarten through high school. City schools are largely funded by the state of Maryland, which has dedicated $932 million to Baltimore's schools next year.

Young and the council's budget chairwoman, CouncilwomanHelen Holton, said this month that they would refuse to approve the mayor's spending plan without the extra money for after-school programs. That would leave the city without authorized funding for the fiscal year that starts next month.

Rawlings-Blake has said she tried to compromise with Young, and pointed to her suggestion to sell some of the city's parking garages to raise money. Young has rejected that plan.

Councilman Brandon Scott said the cuts Rawlings-Blake proposed Monday could have been avoided if the council had gone along with her proposal to sell the garages.

"I am happy the money is being restored" for youth programs, Scott said. "At the same time, it is still unfortunate there has to be cuts to make it happen. The city doesn't have a money tree."

Young said he will continue to push to save more youth programs. He wants the city to pay $167,000 to keep day care open at Waverly and Northwood schools.

Holton said she was "dissatisfied" with a breakdown in communication between the council and the administration.

"The thing about resolving differences is staying engaged in the conversation," Holton said. "Honest minds can agree to differ, that is the road to compromise. We were on a path of compromise. … Once again, this is an executive decision being made. This is not the makings of a compromise."

Rawlings-Blake said she has welcomed "constructive dialogue."

She said one of her major responsibilities as Baltimore's chief executive is to ensure the city keeps a strong bond rating and remains on sound financial footing. During her tenure, the mayor said, she has introduced a beverage tax to provide money for new schools and increased funding for summer jobs programs.

In her proposed budget, Rawlings-Blake said she increased spending on the school system by $10 million compared to the current fiscal year. The increase came while closing the budget gap, paying for police body cameras and cutting $20 million from the police budget.

"Let me be clear: I care deeply and am passionate about the city's children and to imply otherwise is not based on the facts," she said.

In a related issue, a City Council committee adjourned Monday without approving the school system's budget for next year because the system said it received $2.8 million less than it expected from the city.

The state Department of Education is evaluating whether the city owes the schools the money. State officials are expected to make a ruling in the coming days.

The discrepancy stems from a 15-year agreement under which the city agreed to pay the schools $2.8 million annually toward benefits. School officials told the council committee that the money is budgeted next year for per pupil expenditures, charter school funding and other general fund expenses.

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