Baltimore City Council, Rawlings-Blake reach budget deal

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
City Council, Rawlings-Blake reach deal on $2.6 billion budget after strained negotiations.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council leaders reached a budget deal Friday, likely averting a threatened government shutdown and preserving $4.2 million in funding for children and teens.

The City Council is expected to approve the $2.6 billion budget Monday. The administration and council members have clashed in recent weeks over whether to spend more on after-school and community-based programs.

The deal would free money by spreading $4.2 million in cuts across city agencies. It calls for the elimination of about a dozen vacant or new positions, a $100,000 reduction in an anti-litter campaign, and would cut spending for street and alley cleaning and graffiti removal.

Also to be cut is $1 million in merit-based raises for city managers, $100,000 for library materials, and $170,000 for bridge repairs and preventive maintenance.

Discretionary grants provided to community groups for programs such as homeownership counseling, health services and financial literacy would be reduced by $500,000.

The accord was struck after a bitter public battle. Rawlings-Blake has criticized Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young for rejecting her plan to make money by selling some city parking garages. This week, the mayor and council approved a property tax cut for some senior citizens that is expected to cost the city up to $4 million — nearly the cost of fully funding the youth programs.

Rob English, lead organizer for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, said the city was looking to shift spending to "business-as-usual" levels a year after the April 2015 unrest, at the expense of families and youths in struggling neighborhoods.

"These are tough budgetary decisions, and it's a shame that it took this much to come to an agreement that was essential for Baltimore's youth," English said. "We need to continue to fight for young people in our city."

BUILD rallied hundreds to protest the mayor's proposed spending plan that would have cut $4.2 million from youth programs. English commended Young and Councilwoman Helen Holton, the budget committee chairwoman, for taking a stand against it.

Young and Holton threatened to reject Rawlings-Blake's proposal, which could have left the city without authorized funding for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The mayor accused the council of "dysfunctional grandstanding" and pledged to avoid a shutdown.

After days of private negotiations, the administration and the council agreed to a list of cuts.

A spokesman for Young called the budget deal a collaborative effort that identified the "least disruptive cuts."

"It is obviously a huge win for the children of Baltimore and their parents, who are going to benefit from the programs that are going to continue to be funded," Young spokesman Lester Davis said. "This is a result of a lot of folks putting in a lot of hard work. It was very difficult scouring through the budget to come up with places to cut."

The $4.2 million would pay for 2,500 children to participate in youth programs and for community programs at six schools. The total includes $167,000 for day care programs at Waverly and Northwood schools.

Rawlings-Blake had recommended cutting the money, having deemed the allocation in the current budget a one-time infusion after the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's death from spinal injuries suffered in police custody.

She has said she was forced to make tough decisions to cover a $60 million revenue shortfall. Her proposed budget would have prevented a drop in funding for schools, cut property taxes for owner-occupied homes and paid for new police body cameras.

Her finance director, Henry Raymond, said Friday that reaching an agreement with the council involved a "very deliberative process."

"The budget was very lean to begin with," Henry said. "It made the choices very difficult, but the mayor very carefully thought out the potential service impacts, and with her senior team, made the best possible choices under very difficult circumstances."

The council is expected to meet Thursday to set the property tax rate, pending its approval earlier that day by the city's spending panel. Under the mayor's plan, the effective tax rate on owner-occupied homes would drop a penny — to $2.12 — for every $100 of assessed value.

Rawlings-Blake has cut the rate by about 13 cents during her administration.

The deal does not address the city school system's assertion that the city underfunded it by $2.8 million in the next fiscal year. The Maryland Department of Education is expected to determine whether the city owes the school system the money or school officials must cut it from their spending plan.

The issue is not expected to delay approval of the city's budget.

As negotiations continued this week, the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee held a hastily called meeting Wednesday during which council members agreed to send the budget to the full council for a vote Monday, pending receipt of a list of the mayor's proposed cuts.

The panel met outside of council chambers in a small conference room while another committee held a hearing on an unrelated matter in the chambers.

The council president's office said the meeting complied with all open-meetings requirements.

Friday's deal did not leave everyone satisfied.

A spokesman for the Enoch Pratt Free Library said the loss of $100,000 would be felt throughout the library system. Pratt spokesman Roswell Encina called on city officials to reconsider.

"The cuts will have a huge impact on all patrons across the city — children, teens and adults," Encina said in an email. "We still depend on the city for basic needs. Materials are a basic need."

Carol Ott, a housing activist, said reducing the city's investment in code enforcement could have troubling consequences. The budget cuts call for three vacant positions in the housing department to be eliminated — a housing inspector, a building inspector and a clerical worker.

"It's not just about low-income residents or low-income neighborhoods who would be negatively affected," Ott said. "Those inspectors go out and inspect new construction and rehab."

Councilman Brandon Scott, a member of the budget committee, called the cuts unfortunate but pointed to the opportunities for youth.

"We just have to make do, and it's really just about the kids," he said.

Holton, who is retiring, called the budget process one of the most difficult of her 21 years on the council. Baltimore's strong mayoral form of government gives the council little power to control spending or set budget priorities.

Taking a stand against the mayor's proposed budget was worthwhile, Holton said.

"We got something where there was nothing," she said. "Thousands of children will benefit in a way that they might not have otherwise."

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